Italian word of the day: ‘Afa’

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One word you likely learned early on in your Italian language journey is fuoco – fire. It’s easy to remember, and used in many of the same contexts as the English equivalent.

But you may have noticed another word, particularly when reading about the wildfires wreaking havoc across Italy at the moment: incendio.

You can likely work out the meaning of this word. After all, it reminds us of the English word incendiary, which has the same Latin root.

Both words effectively mean the same thing: ‘fire’. But confusion arises from the fact that they can’t always be used interchangeably.

So what exactly is the difference between fuoco and incendio?

Simply put, fuoco tends to be used to refer to the element; while incendio is used when something is on fire.

Le eruzioni vulcaniche e gli incendi continueranno

The volcanic eruptions and fires continue

A wildfire or forest fire is called an incendio forestale or incendio nel bosco. 

L’incendio forestale continua ad imperversare.

The forest fire continues to rage on.

Fuoco is used more widely to talk about fire in general. For example, fireworks are fuochi d’artificio (literally: ‘artificial fires’) and firefighters are vigili del fuoco (literally: ‘fire guards’) – a Roman-era term reintroduced under Mussolini’s rule, as the dictator is said to have preferred it to pompieri, as they were previously called (and still are in some parts of the country).

One common usage is when talking about the heat used while cooking: fuoco basso/alto (low/high heat).

Bisogna friggere le cipolle a fuoco basso 

You need to fry the onions on a low heat

And Italian has plenty of fire-related idioms, which you may or may not be able to guess the meanings of.

For example: fare fuoco e fiamme literally means ‘to make fire and flames’: it’s used to talk about someone really losing their temper, where in English we might ‘go ballistic’ or ‘raise hell’.

Slightly less dramatically, a hectic day might also be described as una giornata di fuoco, or ‘a day of fire’.

Do you have a favourite Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.