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Taking Apart a Long Word: Stendibiancheria Part 1

When Marika showed us her balcony, she used a couple of long words that may have seemed a bit daunting. There are certainly plenty of long words in Italian that are just plain difficult, like farmaceutico (pharmaceutical). The meaning is clear, but pronouncing it takes some practice (don’t snub any of the vowels). Other words, though, have common abbreviations that make life easier. And some long words can be broken down into their parts, making them easily comprehensible as well as pronounceable.



One of the words Marika used in her video was stendibiancheria. It’s long but there’s help.


First of all, most people just say lo stendino (the drying rack).


Second of all, if we start breaking down stendibiancheria into manageable parts, the next time it comes up, you’ll know what it means from the inside out, and you will probably be able to pronounce it as well.


We start out with the verb stendere. It’s a very useful verb that means to spread, to lay out, to stretch out, to extend over space. Thinking of  “extend” can help recall this verb.


An interesting extra fact is this:

In the eighteenth century, in Tuscany at least, the (transitive) verb was tendere, that is, to stretch out, to unfold (after washing and wringing out) so that the laundry would dry faster.


As we have learned in a video, and a written lesson, adding an s at the beginning of a word can give it an opposite meaning. So, stendere used to be the opposite of tendere, and meant taking in the now dry laundry, or rather taking it off the clothesline.


Later on, stendere and tendere lost their distinction (dictionaries indicate that in many contexts, stendere and tendere mean the same thing).


Stendere survived as the most common term for hanging up the laundry. Let’s also remember that lacking a clothesline, some people would also have spread their clean laundry on bushes or rocks to catch the sun, so stendere—“spreading it out” makes a certain amount of sense.


Another important context for stendere is cooking.

In the following example, we start out with little balls of pizza dough, but then we spread them out to cover a larger area. So when you are following a recipe in Italian for making fresh pasta or pizza, stendere la sfoglia is when you roll out the dough, spread it out by hand, or use a pasta machine to make wide, flat strips.


Queste pallette [palline] poi vanno fatte lievitare circa due ore

These little balls then are left to rise about two hours

e si stende la pizza.

and you roll out the pizza.

Captions 15-16, Anna e Marika - Pizza al taglio romana

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The past participle of stenderesteso, which can also pass for an adjective, is useful for when you are talking about positions in space.


Stavo, mi ricordo, guardando le olimpiadi, stesa sul divano

I was, I remember, watching the Olympics, lying on the couch

come una balena spiaggiata.

like a beached whale.

Captions 12-13, Anna presenta - Il mio parto

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In the above example, “stretched out” could have worked just as well to translate Anna’s position.


When referring to muscles or just how someone feels, we can use teso (tense), the past participle of tendere, also used as an adjective.


Ha notato qualcosa di strano? Se era teso, preoccupato?

Did you notice anything strange? If he was tense, worried?

Caption 19, Il Commissario Manara -S1EP9 - Morte in paradiso

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The prefix dis is also used to give a word the opposite meaning. In fact, disteso, the past participle of distendere and adjective, can mean either “relaxed,”  “unwound,” or “out,” as in the following example.


Per dire: "ci sentiamo per telefono",

To say, "we'll talk by phone,"

si porta la mano all'altezza dell'orecchio

you bring your hand up to the height of your ear

e si simula la cornetta,

and you imitate a receiver,

tenendo pollice e mignolo distesi.

holding your thumb and little finger out.

Captions 9-12, Arianna spiega - I gesti degli Italiani

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Tendere also means “to tend” as in tendenza (tendency). That’s a nice cognate, isn’t it?


Le piante tendono, quando si inselvatichiscono,

Plants tend, when they become wild,

a fare i frutti molto più piccoli.

to produce much smaller fruit.

Captions 17-18, Gianni si racconta - L'olivo e i rovi

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It’s easy to be confused by all these words that are so close in meaning. Context is key, so just keep watching, listening, and reading, and piano piano ce la farai (little by little you’ll make it), one word at a time!

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