Saturday, November 24, 2001

The Italian connection

ITALLIANS have always been prime contributors to the civilisation of Europe, including its languages. English has borrowed heavily from Italian, especially in the world of music, where directions for form and statement are customarily written in Italian; concerto, allegro, and ante, rubato and many other words have Italian roots. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Italy was a world leader in the techniques of organised warfare, as proved by words like battalion, brigade, cavalry, infantry, colonel, sentinel, musket and cannon, all borrowed from Italian through French. Band, brigand, duel and vendetta keep alive other kinds of fighting. And, where would food be without the Italian lasagna, salami, pizza, macaroni and vermicelli?

Italian words frequently fill up gaps where any other word might not be as effective. Risorgimento is one such word, which comes from the movement for the liberation and unification of Italy (1750-1870). Today it is used for any period or instance of rebirth or renewed activity. It comes from risorgere, to rise again, from the Latin resurgere.

Words in writing
November 10, 2001
October 27, 2001
The pickings of war
October 13, 2001
American English
September 29, 2001
September 15, 2001
Foreigners, come to stay
September 1, 2001

Word clusters
August 18, 2001

In the same vein
August 4, 2001
The cyber family
July 21, 2001
Italian friends
July 7, 2001
Random words
June 23, 2001
Mortal practices, immortal words
June 9, 2001

A condottiere was the leader of a private band of mercenary soldiers in Italy, especially in the 14th and 15th centuries. Today, a condottiere is any mercenary or soldier of fortune. The word comes from the Italian equivalent of condotto, from the Latin conductus, meaning hired man. Novels and films frequently use similar words especially when dealing with the mafia. Omerta is another such word. It stands for secrecy sworn to by oath or a code of silence. Vendetta in Italian means revenge, hence the sense of the English vendetta, blood feud between families or any extended quarrel marked by hostility and revenge.

Many organisations talk about aggiornamento, a process of modernising an institution or organisation, which comes from the Italian aggiornare, to update. This process can often be a fiasco, again an Italian word for the linguistic errors committed by Italian actors on the eighteenth- century French stage, called flasco in Latin. The word imbroglio, a difficult or intricate situation or an entanglement, comes from the Italian imbrogliare, to tangle, confuse.

There are so many words ‘borrowed’ from Italian that it’s quite difficult to look at all of them in one go. However, randomly selected words can show the diversity of the words that have been borrowed. For example, scenario, from the Italian scena or scene, which led to scenario or arrangement of scenes, which led to today’s scenario, or outline of a play. Campaign, a planned movement of an army or political party comes from the Italian campagna. Campagna was the field or countryside used in the sixteenth century to refer to armies actively operating in the field as opposed to those staying in the winter quarters. Sometimes a word borrowed from Italian differs from another word by just a shade of meaning but that shade of meaning says it all. Vendetta, for instance conveys much more than the commonplace revenge.


Shades of meaning enrich a language. In Hindi, words are often arranged in couples, with the members of each pair having a closer affinity with each other than with the rest. Each member appearing in two pairs connects the various pairs. An example can better illustrate this. Chalna, to go, and phirna, to move; phirna and murhna, to turn; murhna and chakkar kaatna, to go round; chakkar kaatna and chakkar khana, to revolve; chakkar khana and chakrana, to be puzzled; chakrana and ghabrana, to be flustered. All linked through shades of meaning, but compare chalna and ghabrana — widely different in meaning!