In the spring and summer of 2001 I lived in Italy, mostly studying Italian. For the first few months of this period, I was in Rome living with a family and studying at a local campus of Seattle’s University of Washington. My host family was working out well because the married pair were both roughly the same age as me, didn’t speak a word of English, and eager to teach me things that I would never learn in class — including the word for “bird”, uccello.
It was conversation time in class on a Monday morning, and three girls were recounting how they had spent the weekend in Siena, taking the train there. While they were on the train up, as recalled one girl, their neighbor in the seat one over was a member of Italy’s Carabinieri, the national police force.
Either being enamoured by the prospect of talking to a man in uniform, or just otherwise eager to strike up a conversation with with a native on their first real trip overseas, one the girls starts asking him questions in broken Italian about his life and job. She extracts that he’s been a Carabinieri for a few years, works in Rome, and is going to Siena for the weekend to visit his mother who still lives there.
Curious about his weapon and the relative levels of safety in Italy, the girl proceeds to ask him: “Quando lavori, hai un grande uccello?” (Do you have a big gun when you work?), recalling that uccello means “gun”. The man’s face first turned deathly white, and then beet red.
“What?”, he stammered. The girl repeated the question, and the poor officer just continued to look flabbergasted and wild-eyed. Unable to get an answer out of him, the girl then proceeded to make the gun symbol with her thumb and forefinger — “Uccello? Quando lavori?” (Gun? When you work?).
Relief flooded over the man’s face as he breathed “Aaaah, fucile! Si, Si!”, reminding her of the correct word for gun. The conversation ended soon after and they made it to Siena without much further ado. At a bar that evening, they recounted the weird conversation with some English-speaking locals they met at a bar, who all immediately proceeded to burst into uproarious laughter, but wouldn’t tell them why.
So, it was only finally on that Monday morning, when both the teacher, myself, and one other girl in the class suddenly started giggling uncontrollably that the poor girls found out that uccello, the Italian word for “bird”, is commonly used to mean “cock”.[Read Rest of Article]