[For the OxfordWords blog:] Indebted to…Italy

Try this experiment: think of a word, any word, that we use regularly in English which has clear Italian origins before reading on.

Ready? It’s more than likely you’ve come up with a gastronomic term – a snap poll I took last week placed pizza, spaghetti, and cappuccino as front runners (along with ciao, which incidentally was originally a way of politely declaring ‘I am your slave’. You might want to think about that before saying it in the future.). There’s no doubt that Italian cuisine is one of the country’s most successful exports. For example, while you probably didn’t know that today is reportedly National Lasagna Day in America, there’s a good chance that you know and love the Italian dish itself, since lasagna (or lasagne in its more authentic spelling) has also well and truly earned its place on the list of Britain’s favourite dishes. Before we tuck into today’s layered lunch, however, it might be worth paying tribute for a moment to the various ways in which the Italian language has influenced English over the centuries.

Just one cornetto…

It’s hard to believe that Italian food really only became widely popular in Britain during the second half of the twentieth century. In fact, the post-war generation was still so unfamiliar with pasta – which was then ‘not a widely-eaten food in the UK’  –  that they were famously taken in by the BBC’s 1957 April Fool’s spoof documentary on spaghetti bushes. And yet these days the average Briton is likely to have a kitchen stocked with more than just macaroni and spaghetti: even ordinary supermarkets boast everything from a calzone (literally ‘trouser leg’) and a ciabatta (‘slipper’) to fettuccine (‘little ribbons’) and farfalle (‘butterflies’), not to mention ready-made sauces with eyebrow-raising etymologies, such as cacciatore (literally ‘hunter’, because of the use of ingredients that a hunter might have to hand) and puttanesca (from puttana, ‘prostitute’ –  the sauce is said to have been devised by prostitutes as one which could be cooked quickly between clients’ visits).  For dessert, we’ve embraced tutti-frutti (literally ‘all fruits’) ice cream, along with panna cotta (literally ‘cooked cream’) and tiramisu (‘pick me up’) among others. And these days a barista surely needs more qualifications than a barrister to know the difference between a macchiato, latte, cappuccino, mocha, ristretto, americano, and espresso.

If music be the food of love…

And so from food to arguably Italy’s second most successful export. Since the Italians led by example in classical music for so long, we’ve also inherited a myriad of musical words. Aside from technical terms used regularly by musicians such as adagio (literally ‘at ease’), pizzicato (‘plucked’, for stringed instruments), or scherzo (‘jest’), our conversations are peppered with plenty of other words which even non-musicians are familiar with. Finale, opera, and piccolo, for example, all look and sound Italian, but there are also anglicized terms such as concert (from an Italian verb meaning ‘to harmonize’), serenade (from the Italian equivalent of ‘serene’), and piano (from the Italian piano e forte, meaning ‘soft and loud’) to name but a few.


But that’s not all. Actually, English has been appropriating words directly from Italian on all subjects with great gusto over the years. Are you a dilettante or a diva? A prima donna or perhaps one of the paparazzi? Have you ever thrown confetti, daubed graffiti, recited a motto, played the lotto, run a tombola at the regatta or attended a gala in stilettos aiming to be one of the cognoscenti? Perhaps you crept incognito into a ghetto to try your luck in a casino, but it was a total fiasco and now the owner is pursuing a vendetta against you. Or you’re a rather Machiavellian politician with a certain portfolio attempting to extricate yourself from the latest imbroglio with carefully chosen propaganda. Or maybe you’re wearing magenta and sitting on a terracotta-coloured piazza, murmuring sotto voce under the pergola as you sip the local vino in your villa on the riviera, living la dolce vita. (If that paragraph’s left you feeling a little dizzy, then ditto – same here – but I promise you it’s over now: finito.)

Viva italiano!

It’s likely that you’ll recognize the above words as loan words from Italian because of their spelling. However, there are still more English words out there with recognizably and distinctly Italian etymologies. Some of the more interesting are lava, a Neopolitan dialect word originally used to describe a stream caused by sudden rain but applied locally to the substance flowing from Vesuvius (our word volcano comes to us from Italian too); nepotism, which comes from the Italian nipote or  ‘nephew’ (with reference to privileges bestowed on the ‘nephews’ of popes, who were in many cases their illegitimate sons); desk (probably from Italian desco or ‘butcher’s block’, among other possible sources); disaster (from the Italian disastro or ‘ill-starred event’), gazette (from the Venetian coin called gazeta, for which such newsletters were sold); bizarre (originally from the Italian bizzarro or ‘angry’), zany (from the Venetian form of Gianni, stock name of the servants acting as clowns in the commedia dell’arte); bankrupt (from the Italian banca rotta or ‘broken bench’); corridor (from the Italian ‘running place’); and the essential oil neroli (said to be from the name of an Italian princess).

This article was originally published as Indebted to…Italy on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, OxfordWords, on July 29, 2011

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