A word which doesn’t look Italian, but as from 2021 – it is!

Elderly gentlemen shown to illustrate the word umarells

UMARELL – a new Italian word included for the first time in the 2021 edition of the esteemed Zingarelli dictionary.

Look it up and you will read: ‘pensionato che si aggira, per lo più con le mani dietro la schiena, presso i cantieri di lavoro, controllando, facendo domande, dando suggerimenti o criticando le attività che vi si svolgono’.

You might recognise the type of person this term describes: an elderly gent, possibly in an anorak, probably wearing a hat, stereotypically with hands clasped behind his back, peering intently at ongoing roadworks or a difficult parking manoeuvre and offering a running, uninvited commentary on the progress.

Similar scenes and behaviour are probably found the world over, but we have to thank Italy, or more specifically, Bologna, for coming up with an apt name to describe such individuals: umarells.

You would be right in thinking the word doesn’t quite look Italian. In fact, it comes from the Bolognese dialect meaning ‘little man’ (also spelled omarello or ometto).

The word first came to national attention thanks to Bologna-based blog writer Danilo Masotti, who some fifteen years ago began documenting his favourite local umarells (spelling the plural with an English ‘s’ for comic effect).

In his study of this phenomenon, Danilo Masotti describes an umarell as someone who may be retired and who has very little to do all day. Umarells justify their existence by interfering in (or helping with) other people’s business, perhaps in an attempt to make themselves feel useful. 

They appear everywhere: at a crossroads where there’s just been an accident, in a packed bus arguing with someone who barely jostled them, or in line at the post office, the bank, the land registry office. Come to think of it, there is probably a little bit of umarell spirit harbouring within each one of us.  

To honour this newly named population of umarells, the city of Bologna has renamed a square in the east of the city as Piazzetta degli Umarells‘.

Other towns in Emilia Romagna have decided not to waste this valuable resource and have begun paying dedicated umarells to keep watch at places like construction sites to detect any theft of materials. Umarells can even vie for the prestigious ‘Umarell of the Year’ award which acknowledges the skill of the most observant among them.

You can keep up with what is happening in the umarell world via their very own facebook page www.facebook.com/umarells/?fref=ts

The general consensus is: we can’t do without umarells. They are indeed an endearing part of our town spaces…. just as long as you’re not on the receiving end of their advice!