Ever wonder which word is the most universally used word? We have, and L’Italo-Americano, the #1 source for all things Italian since 1908 has as well. L’Italo-Americano tells us, the single handedly most popular word of the bella lingua, the ultimate passport to Italian living, a word so famous it has been adopted by other nations, so perfect and clear it can’t be bettered is: Ciao.
Yes, Ciao. Can you think of anything more Italian than that? Where did it come from and when did we start using it? Was it always a salutation, or did it have a different meaning initially? So, here’s what we know about Italy’s “hello.”
Apparently, the origin of the word is found in the dialect of Venice, where people had the habit to say hello to each other using the word “s’ciavo,” or “slave.” No, Venetians were not crazy, quite simply they used the expression instead of the longer and more cumbersome “servo vostro,” which we’d translate in English as
“I am your servant,” or even “ at your service.” To find examples of such use, we don’t need to look any further than the work of Venice’s own playwright extraordinaire, Carlo Goldoni, who employed it often in his comedies about Venetian society.
“S’ciavo,” however, is not quite the same as ciao and it took some time and a good deal of linguistic evolution to go from the first to the latter. “S’ciavo” most likely came from the Latin servus, which meant servant or slave. During Imperial times, many slaves came from the area of what was then called Slavonia or Sclavonia, which roughly corresponds to modern Eastern Croatia. Because of languages’ transitive property, the adjective indicating people from those regions, sclavus or slavus, became synonym with the word servus: and that’s how we went from the Latin servus to the vulgar Italian schiavo.
Fast forward a few centuries and the rise in popularity of Dante and Guido Cavalcanti’s Dolce Stil Novo,
a type of poetry in vulgar Italian inspired by idealized love and the iconic figure of the donna angelo, gives to the word schiavo a new meaning: a schiavo is no longer a mere servant, but also someone subjugated by love and passion, someone ready to do anything for the object of his desire. And so, being a schiavo no longer means only and exclusively being a slave to a master, but also being ready to do anything for someone, just like an infatuated man would do for his lover. It’s in this sense that the use of “s’ciavo”in Venetian dialect should be interpreted: people would salute each other in the street saying “I am at your service,” a polite and reverent manner to show appreciation and respect.
The first, written attestation of the word ciao is 200 years old, although we can imagine its use in the oral language must have been already common for a while: it appeared in a letter written in 1818 by Francesco Benedetti, a playwright from Cortona who in it described the niceties received by a group of Milanese with whom he had gone to La Scala: “Questi buoni Milanesi cominciano a dirmi: Ciau Benedettin.” In 1819, British writer Lady Sidney Morgan mentioned people, always at La Scala in Milan, exchanging cordial ciavo, from a box to another. From the very same period is yet another written confirmation of the word, found in a letter sent by countess Giovanna Maffei, from Verona, to her husband, where she mentions that their young son “mi disse di dir ciao a Moti.”
Today, “ciao” is an international word, always associated with Italy, but whose meaning is clear in every corner of the world. Well, you know what? It has been the case for more than one hundred years, as its presence in a French novel dating 1893 proves: written by Paul Bourget, it has a character speaking in Italian and saying “Ciaò, simpaticone!” Just a few years later, at the beginning of the 1900s, a popular waltz entitled “Ciao” had people dancing around Europe. After the end of the Second World War, the popularity of Italian cinema helped the internationalization of “ciao” even further, making of it a linguistic symbol of Italy.
And because language is continuously evolving - as the origin itself of ciao demonstrates - there are new variations of our favorite salute, which have become particularly popular in recent years and decades: “ciao raga” (hey guys), “ciao neh” (hey! Hi!) and even the horrible “ciaone” (literally, a huge ciao), recent neologism already part of the Vocabolario Treccani della Lingua Italiana.
Today, “ciao” is the most used Italian word on earth, second only to another icon of Italy’s life and heritage: “pizza.” Short, simple to remember and with an interesting story: no wonder we all love it. And so it goes, the illustrious tale of “ciao,” of its birth and how it became the most common and colorful way to say hello to friends, family and people in the street: mostly used only among those who know each other, it’s not that uncommon, when the atmosphere allows it or the occasion calls for it, to say “ciao” to people we’ve just met, especially when we’ve enjoyed their company or shared a special experience: a little word that makes us all feel closer.
Why not join us in Tuscany to practice using ‘Ciao’. We still have a few 'couples' spots (double occupancy) for our Tuscan Adventure tour from August 18-28, 2019 at our villa in Tuscany near Certaldo and Gambassi Terme, 45 mins. south of Florence and 45mins. north of Siena. Savings of up to $1000 per couple still available. Email us for a detailed daily itinerary.
Ciao . . . a presto,
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Tony Moglia's grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 1900's. He's a dual citizen who has traveled extensively throughout Italy for 40 years. He's happily married to a vibrant dancer who together have two children and three grandchildren. Tony has dreamed of Villas of Italy since his first trip to Italy, and now he shares his dream with you.