What does boh mean in Italian?

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What does boh mean in Italian? Boh is a word that you will hear a lot while in Italy. I use it all the time. It basically means “I don’t know”. Only talking with some American friends I realized they didn’t have a way to convey the same concept. At least it’s what they told me.  

Incorrect explanation in Spiderman Far From Home

Last Sunday I went to the movies to watch Spiderman Far From Home and I heard a weird explanation about the meaning of boh. I like the Marvel universe and plus I was curious to see the scenes set in Venice. That’s why I used a photo I took in Venice as a cover for this post. I loved the Venice setting by the way. This particular movie has the merit (as opposed to The Tourist where many locations were changed or twisted) of depicting Venice more or less as it is, except for the hotel in which the kids stay… a real flophouse. I want to believe there are no places like that one in Venice. 

Anyways, precisely during the Venice scenes, MJ explains to Peter a word she learned in Italy: boh. And when he asks what does boh mean in Italian, she replies:

“It can mean a million things. It can mean I don’t know, get out of my face, I don’t know and get out of my face. It’s the best thing Italy ever created besides maybe espresso.”

Well, sorry, MJ, but you’re wrong. Boh only means I don’t know. It does not mean “get out of my face”. Matteo and I were very puzzled by this explanation. And by the following scene. The two bump into a street vendor, who asks them if they want to buy something. MJ replies with a: “Bohand the vendor is left speechless. Well, I don’t think it would actually work. It just means I don’t know, so in real life, a street vendor would probably go on trying to sell you something anyway. 

Italian songs in Spiderman Far From Home

By the way, there was another Italian “contribution” to the movie: two songs. One is by Umberto Tozzi and the title is “Stella Stai”. You can hear it while the boys are on the plane. The song dates back to 1980 and it is not a super popular song. In fact, my husband Matteo had never heard it. While I knew it cause my brother (who is 15 years older than me) liked the singer and had the cassette. So I started singing at the cinema (not loudly, eh). 🙂 It was really unexpected to find a song like this in Spiderman! Stella stai means Star stay. The second song is on the background while the lot is at the airport Marco Polo. The title is “Bongo cha cha cha“, sung by Caterina Valente. Quite a funny song. I admit I had never heard the song nor the name of the singer until the movie (the song dates back to 1959).

What does boh mean in Italian?

Grammatically, boh is an interjection. Interjection basically synthesizes a state of mind with a simple expression. It means that it can represent an entire sentence on its own or it can be positioned in the middle of a speech without connections with the rest of the sentence. It usually expresses a sudden reaction to what you’re hearing. Boh can be used to express doubt, indifference or reluctance to comment on something. It seems that its origin is onomatopoeic, i.e. the transcription of the sound people emit when they want to express uncertainty. 

The nuances of the “I don’t know” are many: a simple I don’t know, I don’t know and I don’t care, I know but I prefer to say nothing, etc.

Examples

  • How old is Maria’s son?
  • Boh, I have no idea.

The following is an actual question I asked my husband the other day:

  • Do you think I should buy a new smartphone? (mine is showing signs of abating)
  • Boh, I think it could be useful for you.

(So even if he thought I should probably buy a new one, he preferred to use a boh to stress uncertainty). 

  • Dad, how many planets are there?
  • Boh, like billions!

In the middle of the sentence

We also use it in the middle of a sentence and not only as a reply. 

  • Why do you think that you should not go out tonight?
  • I have to study and plus, boh, I think my mum doesn’t want to stay alone at dinner.
  • What would you like to do?
  • I’d love to go for a walk, or to the movies or and then, boh, whatever you want.

Note of disapproval

Boh can also have another nuance of meaning. It is always “I don’t know” but with a note of disapproval or skepticism. In this case, the pronunciation is slightly different. We prolong the pronunciation of the “o” like there were 2 or 3. 😀 Or/and we say it with a skeptic intonation. It is usually a reply to someone else’s statement about someone or something that is not right. Examples:

  • Why is he always that rude?
  • Booooh. (said with a note of disapproval) I don’t know what’s in his head!

I hope you liked the explanation about What does boh mean in Italian. If you want to learn more about my language, go to the section dedicated to the Italian Language!