Five easy Italian words with a curious history

Have you ever wondered how Italy got its name? Or why we say 'Lei' when we talk to our bosses, or how the word 'cappuccino' came to be?

Five easy Italian words with a curious history
Do you know why we say 'Italy'? Or 'cappuccino'? Photo: roevin/Flickr

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

Photo: Depositphotos

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, which was spoken in southern Italy. From this, the Latin word 'vitulus' referring to a young calf, evolved – and so did 'Italia', which likely meant something along the lines of 'land of cattle'.

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

Ragazzo | Boy

Photo: Depositphotos

'Raggazzo' likely came into the Italian language from Arabic, and derives from the Arabic 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 related to trade (many food items, for example 'zucchero' and 'caffe' have Arabic origins). From there, it transformed into Latin 'ragazium' and then Italian 'ragazzo', and the meaning got diluted so that now it simply means 'boy'.

Fortunatamente | Fortunately

Photo: Depositphotos

…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 instead 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 (signifying that a word was an adverb), it slowly moved to the end of the phrase and became attached to the adjective rather than being an independent word.

Lei | You (formal)

Photo: Depositphotos

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.

'Voi' is still used in some southern dialects, but in the northern dialects it was replaced by ‘Lei’ at courts. This formal ‘Lei’ shouldn’t be thought of as ‘she’ (which is 'lei' with a small 'l') – the feminine form is used because it stems from the term ‘Sua eccellenza’ (Your Excellency).

READ ALSO: Ten Italian words stolen into English and reinvented

'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 his 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. Note: The use of ‘voi’ as a formal ‘you’ in standard Italian (not the southern dialects mentioned above) still carries fascist associations and should generally be avoided.


Photo: Depositphotos

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'.

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 on the peninsular until the 20th century (when the invention of fridges allowed them to swap the egg and cream for milk), however the 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.


Member comments

  1. 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.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Five tips that make it easier to learn Italian

Learning Italian can be tricky to begin with, but there are ways to help smooth the path to proficiency.

Five tips that make it easier to learn Italian

The journey to fluency in Italian can sometimes feels like it’s all uphill. Here are some tips for making things a little easier.

1. Practice speaking Italian as soon as you can

Speaking in Italian can feel daunting when you’re a beginner, but the best strategy is to throw yourself in at the deep end and not worry too much about making mistakes, as this is one of the quickest ways to get comfortable with the language.

  • If you live or work with someone who speaks fluent Italian, try to switch the conversation to Italian just for a few minutes a day to start with.
  • Set up a regular language exchange with a native Italian speaker. In Italy you’re likely to find plenty of Italians keen to practice their English and willing to correct your Italian in exchange. If you’re somewhere more remote, you can arrange online sessions through platforms like Tandem.
  • Look for places that hold language events, such as cafes or the weekly gatherings such as those held by the Koiné – Italian Language Centre in Rome where you can chat to other people learning Italian.
  • Join conversation groups through the Meetup app.
  • Look up ‘fare volontariato’ along with the name of your town to find volunteer opportunities in your area, where you will get to practice your Italian.

2. Language schools

There are a plethora of private language schools in Italy for foreign students wanting to learn Italian, with a wide range of prices and time commitment levels to choose from.

You may also be eligible for a free or heavily state-subsidised course at your local CPIA (Centro provinciale per l’istruzione degli adulti, or adult education centre). While most often most widely attended asylum seekers and refugees, in theory all foreign nationals over the age of 16 with a valid residency permit have access to these language programmes.

The advantage of language school is that it gives you a structure to your learning, and gives you skills in the four areas of reading, writing, speaking and listening, as well as learning about Italian culture. The class times are often flexible and you can choose between online and classroom lessons.

The downside is that with large class sizes, there isn’t a lot of opportunity to practice speaking, which is why supplementing language school with speaking opportunities can really help.

3. Italian media

Watching Italian TV with subtitles is always helpful. If you don’t have a TV, you can watch some Italian channels online, including programmes by national broadcaster Rai.

On Netflix there are popular Italian series including Zero, Baby, and Suburra: Blood on Rome.  

Italy’s podcast industry is currently growing rapidly, with new programmes popping up all the time – you can find a list of some of the best podcasts to get you started here.

READ ALSO: Some of the best podcasts for learners of Italian

Listening to Italy songs can help with pronunciation. The famous song Con te partirò, with its slow tempo, is a good one to get started with. Here are some other songs that can help you learn Italian.

4. Graphic novels and books

When you first arrive, reading children’s books out aloud can help you learn how to make your mouth form those tricky words, as well as give you confidence when you can read and understand the whole of The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Il piccolo bruco maisazio) in Italian.

If you want something more targeted towards adults, books which have the Italian one page accompanied by an English translation on other, like Jhumpa Lahiri’s In altre parole/In Other Words, are a good option as they allow you to easily and quickly check the meaning of words or phrases you don’t know.

Graphic novels by popular Italian writers and cartoonists like Zerocalcare and Gipi are also a great way in to the language, as you’ll learn more colloquial Italian while having pictures to tell you what’s going on.

You can borrow books from your local library or buy them from second hand shops and mercatini (markets), as well as at bookstores like Feltrinelli.

5. Creating new daily habits

Forming small but regular new habits will keep up your language learning without it feeling too overwhelming.

  • For example, keep a little notebook or a place on your phone where you can write down new words you come across in your daily life. During the week, while on the bus or waiting to meet a friend, keep looking at those words to get them stuck in your head.
  • When you’re caught off guard in situations, such as someone asking in a shop, “Posso aiutarla?” (‘can I help you?’), and you automatically blurt out English, don’t feel too disheartened. Instead, write the scenario down, find out the different ways to respond, and memorise them, so that next time it automatically comes out. “Sto solo guardando, grazie” (‘I’m just looking, thank you’) is always a useful one.
  • Add some Italian accounts to your social media so when you scroll, you’re seeing and hearing Italian. Italian news sites are a good place to start, then seek out the profiles of Italians who specialise in the kinds of things that naturally interest you, whether that’s cooking, fashion, football or something else.
  • Listen to Italian podcasts or audiobooks on your way to work or when doing the washing up, whether it’s about a topic you’re interested in, or a specific language learning podcast like ‘Coffee Break Italian’.
  • Plan out what you’re going to say in a new situation before you say it and commit to it in Italian, for example booking an appointment, ordering food, speaking to your neighbour or language teacher.

Italian language learning can be a slow process but keep going, take the small wins and one day, we promise, you will be understood. 

Find more articles on learning the Italian language here.