The Many Meanings of the Word Prego in Italian

The meaning of prego in Italian
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Who didn’t have an old aunt or a grandmother who used to carry around one of those big bags filled with everything the world could contain? Or at least so we thought when we were kids. One of those Mary Poppins’ purses that could materialize anything from a handkerchief to a box of chocolate pralines. Well, the Italian word “prego” is very similar to one of those fabled bags.  It might be a small word, but it contains multitudes. Of course, this makes for a very tricky word to learn to use and also for a very important one to get right from the get-go.

If you have ever spent some time in Italy, you probably have heard this word a thousand times a day, when you entered that nice shop on the main street, or in a bar, on the metro, in your hotel. Pretty much anywhere.

But where does “prego” come from? 

Its original meaning is the first person of the verb pregare, “to pray”: “io prego”, I pray. This meaning was a frequent one back in time, when etiquette demanded a certain deference. Some examples: “La prego di perdonarmi”, I pray for your forgiveness. 

Nowadays you’ll hear expressions like: “Ti prego, ascoltami”, which means “please, listen to me”. However, keep in mind that when used this way “prego” has a sort of pleading tone to it.

It presumably is because of this original meaning (the verb “to pray”) that “prego” has become the instant reply to “grazie”, which means “thanks”. Once it presumably was an expression to wish someone well who had been nice to you, something like “I pray for your well-being”. 

Back to modern times, prego is a very versatile word. It is easy to get confused, but context can really help you to understand which is the right meaning to fish out from our “multiverse purse.” 

Just remember, basically all that revolves around our little magic word has to do with politeness in one way or the other. 

Let’s break down some possible meanings of the word “prego” and see how the situation you are in can help you detect which one is the right one for the occasion. 

1. You are welcome

The “grazie”-“prego” combination is a must in the Italian language. It basically is an automatism and it is considered the cornerstone of basic politeness. If someone says “grazie” to you and you don’t reply “prego,” you might be considered rude, so watch out for that!

Example: You are in your favourite bar, you order a nice cappuccino to start off your day on the right foot, the barista hands you the mug. Now you say “grazie” and they reply “prego.
Of course this can be useful in countless different situations—from the grocery shop to the museum—but really you just need to remember that when someone says “grazie” to you, you should say “prego” back. Simple as that. 

If you happen to forget it, whoever was waiting for your “prego” might holler at you “prego eh,” just as a reminder that you should have said it.

2. Come in 

You have been invited to someone’s house for dinner or an aperitivo, you ring the bell and wait for them to come and open the door. When they do, they’ll smile and say “prego,” giving you room to enter into the house. As you can see the context does help and guides you to the right meaning, that is “come in.”

Same thing might happen when you get into a shop. The clerk will smile at you from behind the counter and say “prego”, meaning “come in.” It basically is a nice way to usher someone in and show that you are a good host. 

Just remember, basically all that revolves around our little magic word has to do with politeness in one way or the other.

3. After you

Prego” can also mean “after you.” Let’s say you are about to get inside the post office, there’s another person who is about to do the same, you stop on the threshold and say “prego.” Or you are out on a date, and you want your partner to get inside the restaurant first, you move to the side and say “prego.” 

4. Please

Now, this particular meaning has different hues. Didn’t we say that the “prego” multiverse was full of surprises?

You are back at your Italian’s friends house for that aperitivo, you are sitting in a comfortable armchair and your host comes towards you holding a tray with some bruschetta. They lean towards you and say “prego,” which means “please, suit yourself.”

Moreover, you can use our chameleonic little word also to offer someone a seat: “prego, si accomodi,” that is “please, take a seat.”

It might also be the answer someone gives you when you ask to take something. 

Question: Posso prendere questa scatola? (Can I take this box?)
Answer: Prego. (Which would mean something along the lines of: “Please, feel free to do so.”)

5. How can I help you

Don’t be taken aback if while you are taking a look around a shop, the shopkeeper comes next to you and asks: “Prego, signora/signore?” What they mean to ask is: “How can I help you, miss/sir?”

6. I beg your pardon

Normally you would use this kind of “prego” in a more formal setting. Imagine you are having a conversation with someone who is older than you or someone you don’t know very well or a business partner. They happen to say something too quickly or with too low a voice and you don’t hear it well or understand it properly. To make them repeat what they have just said you say, “prego?

Remember that in this particular case there should be a tone of question in your voice. This simple rise in tone will correctly direct your interlocutor to answer accordingly.
On a side note, there are several ways of asking someone to repeat something they have just said, such as “come?” and the very colloquial “eh?,” however these wouldn’t work in a formal setting as they would be considered rude. Better to stick to our “prego” or to “può ripetere, per favore?” (Can you repeat, please?).

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