What does it mean to “have horns” in Italy?

Two Cornuti.

Italy is the country where instead of giving someone the traditional finger in the car, you can really insult them by giving them the ‘corne’ or horns.  That is the index finger and the pinkie raised to look like horns.  If you say in Italian that someone has corne, it means that his or her spouse is cheating.  They are being cuckolded. That is the worst possible insult you can give to an Italian man.  As tempted as I have been in the past to make use of the gesture against aggressive, obnoxious Italian male drivers, Gustavo warned me that people, who have made that gesture in the past, have been run down and murdered by the insulted driver.

Not only do Italian mammas have to worry about being Madonnas with great legs, but society trains them to accept the fact that sooner or later their husbands will give them the ‘corne’ or horns, in other words, he will take a lover.  Italians endlessly joke about cornuti, or people who have grown horns because their spouse has cheated on them.

An older Italian man once told me a joke that he thought was very funny.  A husband and a wife are at an expensive restaurant.  While seated at the table, a beautiful, leggy, buxom blond in a low-cut dress comes up and kisses the husband.  “Ciao, Amore,” she says, before waltzing off.  “Who was that?” demands the wife.“My lover,” answers the husband nonchalantly. “WHAT?” the wife nearly screams. “How dare you take a lover!” The husband leans across the table and says, “I will give you five minutes to think about it, and if you do not like it, you can get up and leave.”

The wife is silent.  She looks around at the elegant restaurant, her jewel-laden fingers, and her mink coat, and thinks.  A few minutes later Giovanni, a colleague of her husband, comes up to their table to greet them.  At his side is a young, buxom brunette, not quite as tall and leggy as the blond lover.  They chat for a few minutes and the couple leaves.

“Who was that woman?” the wife asks.“Giovanni’s  lover,” the husband responds. “Well, our lover is prettier than their lover,” the wife answers. End of joke.

It took me awhile to understand this joke. “Why wouldn’t she get up and leave?” I asked. “What about divorce court? Couldn’t she wring him out for all he’s worth? Then she might end up with two mink coats.”

Over time I have learned just how culture-specific that joke is.  In Italy, lovers are acceptable.  Divorce, although legal since 1970, is less acceptable.  It is part of the Catholic culture that men and women may be forgiven for taking lovers, but not for divorcing and breaking up a family.  The family is sacred.  For many reasons, it has therefore become acceptable to take lovers.

In fact, as the un-funny joke indicated to me, for middle-aged Italian men, it seems that lovers are a prestige symbol.  Italians marvel at the concern Americans have about  their politicians’ lovers.  “You are all so puritan!” they exclaim.  When the Monica Lewinsky affair was roiling in the US, many Italians asked me the same question.  “Clinton is the President of the United States.  Couldn’t he get someone more attractive than Monica Lewinsky? At least Kennedy had the good taste to take Marilyn Monroe to bed.”

The idea of lovers and the accompanying notions of jealousy and passion are deeply rooted in Italian society and the most important symbol is the corne.  An indication of  corne does not just have to come from a hand gesture.

Once I got an ugly pimple (brufolaccio) on my forehead, so I decided to put a Band-Aid on it before going to work.  I didn’t have any small Band-Aids so I just put a normal one smack on the front of my forehead and figured my hair would cover it up.  I walked into the office, greeted Paolo and Pietro, two male colleagues, and sat down at my desk and began checking my email.  I thought I heard a little laugh and a snort behind me, but ignored them.   After about five minutes Paolo said, “Trisha, we have to tell you something.  If you have got a horn (corna) growing out of your head, don’t try to cut it off!  It will just grow back!!” And the two of them burst into laughter.

About an hour later, Pier Paolo Cito, one of AP’s star photographers, came upstairs to chat with us about a news story.  As he got up to leave, he came over to my desk and said, “Oh, and Trisha, can you tell your husband something for me?  If he is going to give you horns, better two at a time.” The whole office burst out laughing (this time me too).   But I did not wear the Band-Aid the next day.

Church of Sant'Eustachio, Rome - I like to think of it as the Church of the Cornuti. Photo by Trisha Thomas

But apparently it can work both ways. Some Mamma friends taught me a new pasta dish today.  It is called Pasta del Cornuto.  It is simply pasta with butter and parmesan on it.  When I asked them why would it be called Pasta del Cornuto they explained that it is so easy to make the wife can spend all afternoon with her lover and just whip it up quickly when her husband gets home.

*Note to Readers: Another post coming soon on how horns can ward off evil for Italians.

16 thoughts on “What does it mean to “have horns” in Italy?”

  1. Living in the longhorn state, everyone gives one another the “corne” especially when the longhorn football team is playing – yikes!

    1. Thanks for the comment Josh– check out the photo my sister sent me above. It is just so funny how gestures can have such different meanings!

  2. You need to publish an “International Guide to gestures” What can i “appropriately” do here in Asia???????

  3. Hook m’ horns. I remember learning this one summer in Dallas. This symbol is also used to indicate a wicked good show in rock n’ roll circles (to use the Yankee adjective wicked, meaning excellent or intense). I remember one of the first times I was joking around with Gustavo about going to some concert and I made this symbol with my hand – he just about leaped across the room to tackle me before explaining.

    I have similar problems in Turkey with the “OK symbol” (a circle made from your thumb and pointer finger and the rest of the fingers up). This supposedly suggests that someone is gay/lesbian/bi/trans in Turkey and does not get a good reception. I often find my self doing all sorts of funny hand dances when I have started to make this sign in some sign-language moment when my Turkish is not enough (which is a lot) in order to avoid insulting someone. I sort of start it – realize with horror what I am doing – and then shake my hand out as if that is what I had intended to do all along! I’ll write a post about it at some point. :) Thanks for the inspiration, Trish!

  4. You can call an Italian male anything you want but if you call him a “cornuto” you better run like the dickens…

    1. Trisha Thomas

      I wouldn’t dream of calling an Italian man “cornuto” even if he had horns growing directly out of his head!!

  5. It’s “Corna ” not “corne ” it’s an uncountable noun so the plural stays unvaried and it’s really not that bad . “Le corna ” or to cheat on one’s partner is not accepted nor encouraged in Italy , at least not anymore . It might have been accepted in times where it was worldwide accepted anyway, all private business swept under the rug and women had to be quiet, but it wasn’t only an Italian thing .
    We have so much to be made fun of already, let’s get some facts straight, we’re not a countries of monkeys.
    Source: I’m Italian,born and raised

  6. I managed a group of restaurants called “cornuti” for years. I always felt proud when people asked me the meaning and I explained. Once I went into an italian restaurant in east london, south africa and as a joke, I called the italian owner a cornuto. He chased me out! Lol

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Yikes! You better be careful. Calling an Italian man a “cornuto” is about the worst insult you can give him. I am surprised he just chased you out and didn’t actually beat you up. If you give someone the cornuto hand signal on the road in Italy you are really risking it– it is considered much worse than the middle finger.

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