Cavolo! (cah-voh-loh) is one of those words you often don’t know whether you can or cannot say in public. When you were a child, your mom likely disapproved of you using it, while, as an adult, you understand it comes fairly handy when you are in situations familiar enough to let some pressure go, but not to allow the use of that other infamous word starting with a “c,” scurrilous synonym for the male member.
Literally, cavolo means “cabbage" and, of course, you can use it as much as you want in that sense. But here we are looking at the non-literal meaning of it, and to its use in a non-literal sense.
Cavolo can be used alone, as an exclamation, or within a series of expressions, like che cavolo or un cavolo di: in these cases, it always gives a negative connotation to whatever we associate it with it.
But one thing at the time. As an exclamation, cavolo shows surprise, awe, incredulity and even regret. We find it in sentences like Cavolo! Non sapevo che cucinassi così bene (Wow! I didn’t know you cooked this well), or Cavolo! Ho dimenticato di pagare la bolletta (Damn! I forgot to pay that bill). In English, as you see, it can translate as more than one term. Beside those used above, you could also choose among “dang,” “oh man,” “shoot!,” “oh boy,” and so on.
Expressions like che cavolo or un cavolo di are a tad different, because, as we said, they always imply something bad. Che cavolo hai combinato? (What the hell did you do?) and questa è una cavolo di bugia, e tu lo sai (this is a damn lie, and you know it) are good examples of its use in this sense.
But why do we use “cabbage” to show surprise or, even more so, to show disappointment? It all comes down to the history of the word itself. You see, cavolo comes from the Greek kaulos, which means “stem” and this created that connection with male anatomy which makes the word such a great, but unoffensive synonym for it.
In ancient times, the cabbage was considered a lowly vegetable, also because of the way it stinks when you cook it. So, our poor leafy green became synonym with something bad, smelly and that could be used linguistically to emphasize negative stuff. Interestingly, the association hinted at above between the word cavolo and the human male reproductive organ originates from the belief cabbage had aphrodisiac properties. So it stinks, it’s cheap but hell, it makes great in the sack.
Mysteries of the Italian language.
Popular in spoken Italian is also the term cavolata, which is a stupid action.
Cavolo! Non trovo più il passaporto!
Shoot! I can’t find my passport!
Quello è un cavolo di zircone, mica un diamante…
That’s a damn cubic zirconia, not a diamond…!
Ho fatto una cavolata.
I did something stupid.