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italian language For Members

Five easy Italian words with a curious history

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
Five easy Italian words with a curious history
Photo by Laura Adai on Unsplash

Have you ever wondered how Italy got its name? Or how the word 'cappuccino' came to be?

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The Italian language has been shaped by centuries of cultural and historical developments, so that every word has a story behind it.

Italian speakers and learners will be familiar with each of the following easy words, and probably use them on a regular basis.

But do you know where they come from?

Italia | Italy

Where does Italy get its name from? The most likely theory is that it comes from the word víteliú, which meant 'calf' in the extinct Oscan language, once spoken in southern Italy. The Latin word vitulus ('young calf') stemmed from this - and so did Italia, which likely meant something along the lines of 'land of cattle'.

This referred at first to southern Italy alone, which did indeed have plenty of cattle, and had the bull as its symbol. Slowly over time though, Italia came to refer to the peninsula as a whole.

Ragazzo | Boy

Ragazzo likely came into the Italian language from Arabic, and is believed to derive from the word raqqa sò, which meant 'messenger boy' and is still used in some regions of northern Africa to mean 'postman'.

Lots of Arabic words came to Italy in the 14th century, most of them thanks to trade (many food items, for example zucchero, or 'sugar', and caffè have Arabic origins). 

Raqqa sò later evolved into the Latin ragazium and then the Italian ragazzo, and the meaning got diluted so that now it simply means 'boy'.

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Fortunatamente | Fortunately

...Or in fact, any adverb ending in -mente.

You probably know that mente also exists as an independent word in Italian, meaning ‘mind’, and that’s where adverbs of this kind come from. 

In older forms of Italian, adverbs didn’t exist at all, so writers had to use lengthier constructions - this is still done today in phrases like in modo semplice as an alternative to semplicemente.

For example, when talking about people, writers used phrases like di mente lieta ('of a happy mind') to get their point across and, as centuries went by, this usage was extended even to instances when the subject did not have a mind.

As mente lost its literal meaning and came to work just as a grammatical component, it slowly moved to the end of the phrase and became attached to the adjective rather than being an independent word.

Lei | You (formal)

The ancient Romans had only one word for ‘you’ - tu - and this form is becoming increasingly common in modern Italy, but the Italian language retains a distinction between a formal and informal form of address.

This was introduced in the Middle Ages, when the plural Voi was used with a superior (the idea was that it showed respect by acknowledging that they were equal to several single tu people).

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Voi was later replaced by Lei in some northern dialects. The formal Lei, which shouldn’t be confused with ‘she’ (or lei with a small 'l') stemmed from the term Sua Eccellenza (Your Excellency).

Voi and Lei were in competition for a while before dictator Benito Mussolini rose to power. As part of his reforms to the Italian language, he ordered the substitution of Lei with Voi. One of the reasons for this was the mistaken belief that Lei stemmed from Spanish influence.

After the Second World War, Italians were keen to shake off Mussolini’s influence, and turned back to Lei when speaking to people in authority positions.

Cappuccino

When cappucinos were first invented, they were very different from the ones you'll find at your local bar today, and were made from coffee, sugar, egg yolks and cream. 

The resulting light brown shade reminded people of the hooded robes traditionally worn by Capuchin monks, so they christened the new kind of coffee cappuccino, or 'little Capuchin'.

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The Capuchin monks themselves got their names from their hoods (the Italian word for hood, cappuccio, comes from the Latin caputium) which were long, pointed and brown, inspired by Francis of Assisi's clothes of poverty.

But when it comes to the drink, an even bigger shock is that the cappuccino didn’t even originate in Italy - there is no evidence for it existing in the peninsula until the 20th century.

However, early forms of the beverage were attested in Austria as a kapuziner two hundred years earlier.

The traditional version of the kapuziner can still be found in Austrian cafes, with just a drop of cream, while the Austrians have re-adopted the Italian term cappuccino for the milkier version.

This article was first published in 2016.

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Comments (1)

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Anonymous 2019/02/02 03:29
John v. Terranova translates john to Giovanni young vito or vita life terranova new earh or land so my name isAmercanize to young life in the New land I don't think that was purposeful just my parents love.thank you for listening.

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