Ever since my first days living and going to university in Italy, I’ve become very accustomed to the phrase ‘boh’.
In official terms, the translation of this word is simply put as an expression of doubt. While this is definitely true, it’s far from capturing the many nuances of the word in its widespread use by Italians. Doubt and/or disinterest would be closer, however from my experience I would prefer to translate it into four slightly different phrases, used in response to any question;
1.’I don’t know and I don’t know how to help…’
2.’I don’t know and I don’t care that I don’t know…’
3.’I know but I’m not going to tell you…’
4.’I don’t want to say anything/I don’t have anything to say to you on that matter…’
I’ll start by saying that I am yet to personally receive a ‘boh’ in the sense of no.3, something which I am glad for but also secretly slightly disappointed about. Nonetheless, two situations come to mind as the best examples of my experience with this fantastically unperturbed and Italian word.
The first came within the first couple of weeks of university. After finally finding my way through the Università degli Studi di Ferrara website in order to sign myself up for courses, my first month of university was then a challenge of how to get myself onto the class emailing list. Something that hadn’t happened automatically, I became more and more concerned that as the term went on, I was potentially missing out on important information. One day after a lesson, my friend (also Erasmus) and I asked one of our professors if they could advise in any way, or ideally add our emails onto the list herself. Following a slightly confused look on her face she replied with ‘boh’, admitting that she was not au fait with how the email system worked nor knew who else we might be able to ask. Perhaps I was chucked into the deep end of working out a foreign university with this first professor. Considering she struggled through using Office PowerPoint, Google and the projector for a very painful three hours every Tuesday evening, working out the email system may have been a technical challenge too far. Nonetheless, whilst this ‘boh’ fit mainly into my first translation of the expression (‘I don’t know and I don’t know how to help…’), I couldn’t help but feel that there was also an overlap into translation no.2 (‘I don’t know and I don’t care that I don’t know…’).
Thankfully, the next lesson our other professor volunteered to look into the email issue for us. Alas we were given for the second time the reply of ‘boh’, this time fully in the sense of translation no.1. He had asked the IT department to place our emails onto the list but had been told that Erasmus students weren’t able to be part of it. Clearly we should have gone to the IT department ourselves to double-check this but enjoying the opportunity to be laid back students, more keen on getting the most out of the cultural experience than of the academic studies, we accepted the response from our professor as the end of our search for the elusive class emails.
The second example of experiences in which I’ve heard ‘boh’ is during conversations that. I’ve had with my landlord. I’m currently in an ongoing process of trying to persuade him to replace the broken oven in the apartment I share with two Italian students. It has been out of action since before I moved in and the replacement is too small to cook a pizza. When the first time came for me to pay my rent I took the opportunity to enquire about the provision of a better replacement. ‘Boh’ was my landlord’s reply, and ‘boh’ continues to feature each time that my flatmates and I repeat our request. Another time, following the first extortionate gas bill (extortionate in comparison to prices in the UK, but also because the flat has no double-glazing and is generally lacking in insulation), I wanted to flag up my slight concern with my landlord that he had never before mentioned the huge cost of heating the flat. Again, you can guess which word took a prominent role in his response.
It is very important to be aware of generalising, particularly when commenting on foreign cultures and language and I know that the individual characters of people are always responsible in many ways for their responses. Nonetheless, I think that the fact that even now, six months after moving to Italy, I still hear ‘boh’ from many different Italians is significant.
What is definitely safe to say is that appreciate the phrase much more now than I did at the start. It’s one of those interesting traits specific to a foreign country that you only really come across whilst living abroad and one that I’ll remember when I go back home – although considering the general British culture, I think it would be wise to use it in more casual settings than at university or in conversations with my landlord…that is if I want to stick to the authentic Italian intonation and gestures that go with it.