Sunday, December 9, 2007

Origin of the word "ciao"

"Ciao" is probably the most famous Italian non-food word (excepting perhaps "mafia"). It is very informal and means both "hello" and "good-bye."

The word derives from Venetian dialect for the word schiavo, "slave". In centuries past, the Venetians would greet each other fawningly as servo di lor signori or even schiavo suo, respectively, "your servant, sirs" or "your slave." These phrases are found, for instance, in the plays of Venetian Carlo Goldoni, whose statue is located smack dab in the middle of Venice at the Campo San Bartolomio (Rialto, inset). Worth reading, Goldoni.

Alas, the word "schiavo" and our corresponding English word are related to the word for "Slav". The Venetians, as you may know, were a republic (the longest-lasting republic in history), but had a past as slave-owners, many of their slaves being captured in war. A good number of these in the Middle Ages were in fact from the other side of the Adriatic.