We The Italians | Italian language: Times Are A-Changing

Italian language: Times Are A-Changing

Italian language: Times Are A-Changing

  • WTI Magazine #115 May 19, 2019
  • 334

This month, we are going to look at some Italian words that have changed meaning throughout time. In fact, I was browsing the internet and I found some very curious ones that I though you might enjoy as well. Let’s take a look! 

The fist one is casino. It might seem like an English “casino” but in Italian that one actually has an accent on the final “o,” casino. I kind of knew this one, because in school, your teacher will often tell you to use a synonym instead of casino due to its most recent other meaning. You’ll understand in a second.  Let’s go back to the very origin of this word. According to my source, Latin used to call poor people’s houses casa – house/home –and used the diminutive casino for those that were especially ugly or run-down. That’s the fist meaning: a poor person’s run-down house. From there it just turned into a very small house, usually used for hunting, then to a salon for intellectual conversations and then – this is the meaning teachers were hinting and trying to avoid – a brothel. Indeed, a casino in the 1700s became a place where prostitutes would receive their clients, but then it changed again! And in the 1900s, it started to acquire the meaning of “chaos, confusion.” But, I guess this last change is too recent to forget the previous and more naughty significance in order to to use it as freely in written Italian as one would want to. 

Our next word is tied to English in its new meaning. I’m talking about intrigante which today has a similar meaning to “intriguing,” and it was probably influenced by its English similar alter-ego, but originally it meant someone who didn’t mind their own business but really liked to meddle. So its English false friend ended up changing the meaning of intrigante. Well, now it’s word that will be easier to remember for you! 

Then, I found another word whose change in meaning seemed so drastic that it amazed me. I am talking about siringa – “syringe” – that is commonly known today as a semi-torture device that makes many people faint just at its sight. Well, apparently in the past, it was a musical instrument that shepherds used during the down moments of the grazing. How did it go from the delightful musical instrument to the feared medical supply? Easy, they had a similar shape. Maybe they thought that by giving to the syringe the same name of a musical instrument they would make it less scary. Nice try! 

Another word that changed meaning over time, this time thanks to a series of logical connections, is collaudo – the testing you do to your products before launching them on the market. This definition I gave you, of course, is today’s meaning, but like all the words I’ve just listed to you, collaudo originally was col laudo from the latin laude which meant “with honor” or “merit.” If you think about it, the modern meaning makes perfect sense; if something has “merit” it means it fully passed a test, therefore fare il collaudo – literally “do the testing” – is a way to say “let’s see if something passes the test.” 

I discovered that we can find changes in meaning everywhere. The ward farsa – farce – today refers to a ridiculous theater show or, as an extension, something very ridiculous in life, but according to the Treccani encyclopedia, at first it meant “filling” or, to be more precise, “stuffing,” what today an Italian would call farcia with the “c” or farcitura. This is probably due to the fact that at the beginning it was simply a show that filled the gaps between one act and the other and had to entertain the audience while the actors on stage got ready and changed the scenarios. 

But, as you now may know, I like to keep my favorite last. Which one is it? “Betrayal,” in Italian tradimento. Different sources explain that the etymology of this word is much different from what we think. In the past, it simply meant to “give” in many of the English meanings of this verb like “pass,” “send,” “deliver,” “hand over” or “turn in.” But then it was used in a very particular way and its meaning had a twist. “Where?” you might ask. Well, you probably already know what I’m referring to: The Bible. Yes! When The Bible was translated it said that Judas betrayed – tradunt and from there tradito –  Jesus in the sense that Judas turned Jesus in to the authorities, which then meant condemning him to be first humiliated, then crucified and therefore put to death. But, Jeduas didn’t simply “give” Jesus to the soldiers, that was a real and hard betrayal, so the word tradire was interpreted also as actually “betraying.” So the action of one, but very renowned (pass me the term) man, changed the meaning of the word altogether. Crazy right? 

I think it’s pretty interesting and amazing finding out that words that you use on a daily basis had a completely different meaning not too long ago. Some are more straightforward than others, but it’s astonishing how many there are out there that even we, native speakers, ignore. Some are obviously more interesting than others, but overall they are all pretty good. Now you know some changes in meaning in Italian, but my question is, do you know some in your own language? Have you ever even thought about it? I wonder what someone in the past would understand from our conversations today. They’ll probably think we are crazy saying that we are scared of a musical instrument or that someone “delivered us.”

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