12 Italian Loanwords

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The Italian language and its Latin-derived relatives have enriched English with many words, primarily those pertaining to art, music, and cuisine.

Occasionally, such terms lend themselves well to prose about matters outside those subject areas. For example, one might describe a shadowy cityscape with the word chiaroscuro (“light-dark” — the element -oscuro is cognate with obscure), which refers to the technique in painting — and later in photography and cinematography — of producing distinct areas of light and darkness.

Fermata (“stop,” related to firm), the term for an arbitrary extension of a chord, note, or rest, might be used metaphorically to refer to an awkward silence. And a person of nearly frantic demeanor could be said to have an espresso attitude, from the name of a type of coffee — highly concentrated and therefore producing a potent jolt of the stimulant caffeine — made expressly (hence the name) for a given customer.

Here are other words derived from Italian that fall both inside and outside of the usual categories:

4. Extravaganza: This extravagant word originally referred to exaggerated performances or prose but now denotes an event marked by spectacular elements.

5. Ghetto: This term now associated with a socioeconomically depressed city neighborhood, of disputed etymological origin, most likely derives from borghetto, the diminutive of borgo, cognate with borough and burg (sometimes seen as -burgh in such city names as Pittsburgh).

It acquired a powerful connotation due to the segregation (and persecution) of the Jews in Europe and especially in Nazi Germany; it’s also a sensitive term in reference to areas inhabited primarily by black people or members of other formerly (and sometimes currently) persecuted minorities. However, it is sometimes used neutrally to refer to a distinct area or one noted for a particular quality: Berkeley, California, is home to the original Gourmet Ghetto; the name has since been applied elsewhere. A business district or a part of a company’s offices, alternatively, might be referred to as a technology ghetto.

6. Lingua franca: The original lingua franca — the phrase means “Frankish tongue” — was the pidgin Italian, heavily influenced by other languages, employed in the Middle East during the Crusades of the medieval era. (Why “Frankish”? The Arabs traditionally referred to all Europeans as Faranji, meaning “Franks,” or “French.”) Now, it usually refers to a specialized vocabulary or jargon employed by a certain group.

7. Quarantine: The primary sense of this term (literally, “forty”), a reference to isolation of contagious or infected people, alludes to the medieval custom of restricting ships from plague-stricken areas from docking at a harbor for forty days; the original Italian expression is quarantina giorni (“(period of) forty days”). The term can be applied figuratively, for example, in reference to an effort to separate rivals or to keep a dieting person away from fattening food.

8. Regatta: This term for a boat race (usually one involving sailboats) stems from the name of a competition held by medieval Venetian gondoliers and means “contest,” though its verb form had a secondary meaning of “to haggle.” Figurative uses could include a reference to a parade of ostentatiously dressed people as a regatta.

9. Scenario: This theatrical term (“pertaining to stage scenes”) came in English to refer to an outline of a play, the equivalent of a treatment for a film. Later, it applied to a hypothetical or imagined situation.

10. Segue: Originally strictly a musical term referring to a seamless transition from one movement of a composition to another, segue (“there follows” — it’s related to sequel and sequence) now applies to any such deft maneuver. Because -ue is rarely if ever pronounced as a separate syllable in English — brogue, league, and vague exemplify the norm — some writers who have heard but not seen the word misspell it segway (perhaps influenced by a small motorized vehicle called the Segway).

11. Sotto voce: This expression (“under the voice”) refers to the act of whispering so as not to be overheard, though it often applies to a stage whisper, a character’s speech supposedly unheard by other characters in a performance but amplified so that the audience can hear it. Offstage, the phrase might refer to a comment someone makes as if in confidence to someone else but deliberately uttered loudly enough to be heard by others.

12. Volte-face: This French word derives from the Italian phrase volta faccia (literally, “turn face”), which means to change one’s direction or opinion. The American English synonym of choice, used often in political and business contexts, is flip-flop, though the near-literal translation about-face, originally a military command to reverse the direction one is facing, is also seen and heard; U-turn is common in British English.

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8 thoughts on “12 Italian Loanwords”

  1. To my best of knowledge, lingua franca is not a jargon, but a common language of communication among different mother tongue speakers. As pidgin Italian was in the past, today’s lingua franca is English.

  2. @Rikke – my take on it as well: lingua franca = common language.
    At the time maybe not so much pidgin Italian as pidgin Latin, a language left over from the wide-ranging Roman Empire, or Holy Roman Empire (ruled by Franks). A map of the Frankish empire shows just how much of Europe they actually ruled. So, that was interesting, but not surprising, to hear that the Arabs generally referred to Europeans as “Franks.”

  3. Thanks, Mark.

    I rather prefer your derivation of ghetto than the alternative that derives it from standard Italian ‘getto (pron. jet-TO) = foundry’ (because there was apparently one on the site).

    @ Roberta B. The original Lingua Franca was a mixture of Italian, Turkish, French, Greek, Arabic and Spanish There is actually a descendant of the Lingua Franca called ‘Sabir’ which is spoken in the seaports of the Mediterranean.

    ‘Frank’ (Arabic ‘faranj’) had been the word for ‘Western European’ since before the Crusades. In Modern Greek, ‘Frankos’ is also the word for ‘Roman Catholic’ – in “Zorba the Greek,” Zorba’s French companion crosses herself as she is dying, and one of the village woman comments that, “She crossed herself ‘san Franke = in the Catholic manner’,” rather than ‘san Romaia = in the Orthodox way.’*

    ‘Frank’ became ‘farangi’ in Persian and Urdu, ‘feringhi’ in Hindi and ‘farang’ in Thai. Batu Ferringhi (Foreigners Rock) in Malaysia probably got its name from the English (who jokingly used the Hindi term), but doubtless influenced by Arabic.

    And of course one could add so many more borrowings from Italian, from pizza to pianissumo!


    * Basically Up, Down, Left and Right rather than Up, Down, Right and Left.

  4. banca (bank) – bancarotta (bankrupticy) – debito (debit) – cambiale (cambiale) – violino (violin)- pianoforte (piano) – prospettiva (prospective)- opera (opera) etc, etc, etc………….

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