By Claudia Quesito
According to Treccani—the most famous and influential Italian encyclopedia—Italian boasts 470,000 terms; however, the everyday language of most Italians includes only an average of a little more than 2,000 words.
There are no conclusive data about the most frequently used words, but we can safely list a few terms that Italians use very often—or too often, some might argue, considering that most of them could be easily replaced by synonyms.
The word cosa, for instance, is used all the time to designate things and concepts, or to translate “what.” When in a hurry, or simply when feeling too lazy, someone could say something like Ho lasciato una cosa sul coso blu in cucina (I left something on the blue thing in the kitchen), “coso” most likely referring to a kitchen countertop.
Another popular term is giorno, which is used to indicate a specific day: Il giorno dopo è rimasta a casa; or the “midsection of the day,” meaning morning and afternoon, contraposed to evening and night, e.g. Esce solo di giorno; or, finally, as a short form of buongiorno, as in ’Giorno Signor Bianchi!
Casa also makes the top of the list, thanks to its multiple meanings. In addition to meaning home and house, it can also translate as “place [not necessarily physical] where you feel safe, at ease.”
Coming to verbs, besides the very common ones used in connection with other verbs—essere and avere as auxiliaries; and potere, dovere, and volere as modal verbs—other popular verbs are dire, guardare, and pensare (Mi ha detto che guardando quel film ha pensato a me).
No list of commonly used words in Italian would be complete without cioè and allora, two authentic prezzemolini (ubiquitous words) in the everyday speech of many Italians.
Allora has several meanings, but you’ll generally hear it at the beginning of a sentence, used in the same way “so…” is used in English. Cioè translates “that is,” but it’s mostly used as a filler with no specific meaning. Start noticing and counting the occurrences of cioè, especially when young Italians talk… you might have a hard time keeping track of them!