Five easy Italian words with a curious history

Have you ever wondered how Italy got its name? Or why we say 'Lei' when we talk to our bosses, or how the word 'cappuccino' came to be?

Five easy Italian words with a curious history
Do you know why we say 'Italy'? Or 'cappuccino'? Photo: roevin/Flickr

The Italian language has been shaped by centuries of cultural and historical developments, so that every word has a story behind it.

Italian speakers and learners will be familiar with each of the following easy words, and probably use them on a regular basis.

But do you know where they come from?

Italia | Italy

Photo: Depositphotos

Where does Italy get its name from? The most likely theory is that it comes from the word 'víteliú', which meant 'calf' in the extinct Oscan language, which was spoken in southern Italy. From this, the Latin word 'vitulus' referring to a young calf, evolved – and so did 'Italia', which likely meant something along the lines of 'land of cattle'.

This referred at first to southern Italy, which did indeed have plenty of cattle, and had the bull as its symbol in contrast to Rome's symbol of the wolf. Slowly over time, 'Italia' came to refer to the peninsula as a whole.

Ragazzo | Boy

Photo: Depositphotos

'Raggazzo' likely came into the Italian language from Arabic, and derives from the Arabic word 'raqqa sò', which meant 'messenger boy' and is still used in some regions of northern Africa to mean 'postman'.

Lots of Arabic words came to Italy in the 14th century, most of them related to trade (many food items, for example 'zucchero' and 'caffe' have Arabic origins). From there, it transformed into Latin 'ragazium' and then Italian 'ragazzo', and the meaning got diluted so that now it simply means 'boy'.

Fortunatamente | Fortunately

Photo: Depositphotos

…Or in fact, any adverb ending in ‘mente’. You probably know that ‘mente’ also exists as an independent word in Italian, meaning ‘mind’, and that’s where adverbs of this kind come from. 

In older forms of Italian, adverbs didn’t exist at all, so instead writers had to use lengthier constructions – this is still done today in phrases like ‘in modo semplice’ as an alternative to ‘semplicemente’.

For example, when talking about people, writers used phrases like ‘di mente lieta’ (of a happy mind) to get their point across and as centuries went by, this usage was extended even to instances when the subject did not have a mind.

As ‘mente’ lost its literal meaning and came to work just as a grammatical component (signifying that a word was an adverb), it slowly moved to the end of the phrase and became attached to the adjective rather than being an independent word.

Lei | You (formal)

Photo: Depositphotos

The ancient Romans had only one word for ‘you’ – ‘tu’ – and this form is becoming increasingly common in modern Italy, but the Italian language retains a distinction between a formal and informal form of address.

This was introduced in the Middle Ages, when the plural ‘voi’ was used with a superior – the idea was that it showed respect by acknowledging that they were equal to several single ‘tu’ people.

'Voi' is still used in some southern dialects, but in the northern dialects it was replaced by ‘Lei’ at courts. This formal ‘Lei’ shouldn’t be thought of as ‘she’ (which is 'lei' with a small 'l') – the feminine form is used because it stems from the term ‘Sua eccellenza’ (Your Excellency).

READ ALSO: Ten Italian words stolen into English and reinvented

'Voi' and ‘Lei’ were in competition for a while, before dictator Benito Mussolini rose to power. As part of his reforms to the Italian language, he ordered the substitution of ‘Lei’ with ‘voi’; one of his reasons for this was the mistaken belief that ‘Lei’ stemmed from Spanish influence.

After the Second World War, Italians were keen to shake off Mussolini’s influence, and turned back to 'Lei’  when speaking to people in authority positions. Note: The use of ‘voi’ as a formal ‘you’ in standard Italian (not the southern dialects mentioned above) still carries fascist associations and should generally be avoided.


Photo: Depositphotos

When cappucinos were first invented, they were very different from the ones you'll find at your local bar today, and were made from coffee, sugar, egg yolks and cream. 

The resulting light brown shade reminded people of the hooded robes traditionally worn by Capuchin monks, so they christened the new kind of coffee 'cappuccino' or 'little Capuchin'.

The Capuchin monks themselves got their names from  their hoods (the Italian word for hood, 'cappuccio', comes from the Latin 'caputium') which were long, pointed and brown, inspired by Francis of Assisi's clothes of poverty.

But when it comes to the drink, an even bigger shock is that the cappuccino didn’t even originate in Italy – there is no evidence for it existing on the peninsular until the 20th century (when the invention of fridges allowed them to swap the egg and cream for milk), however the early forms of the beverage were attested in Austria as a ‘kapuziner’ two hundred years earlier.

The traditional version of the 'kapuziner' can still be found in Austrian cafes, with just a drop of cream, while the Austrians have re-adopted the Italian term cappuccino for the milkier version.

This article was first published in 2016.


Member comments

  1. John v. Terranova translates john to Giovanni young vito or vita life terranova new earh or land so my name isAmercanize to young life in the New land I don’t think that was purposeful just my parents love.thank you for listening.

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Italian expression of the day: ‘Essere al verde’

If one of your Italian pals claims to be ‘at the green’ during your next night out, prepare to pay for their drinks

Italian expression of the day: 'Essere al verde'

Who hasn’t at least once in their life opened their online banking app and stared with absolute dread at the balance, wondering how on earth they managed to squander away their savings in the space of a week?

If it’s any comfort, it happens to the best of us and we are definitely not here to judge.

But let us not stray from the purpose of this article, which is to teach you the Italian way to say that you’re stone broke. So, the next time you’re as poor as a church mouse, you can share the news with linguistic richness, at least.

One of, if not the, most popular Italian idiom on the subject is ‘essere al verde’, which can be roughly translated to ‘being at the green’. Naturally, any possible use of the expression requires the speaker to properly conjugate the verb ‘to be’ (‘essere’), as in the following instances:

Q: Vuoi andare a cena fuori stasera?

A: Scusami. Sono al verde. Facciamo la prossima volta.

Q: Would you like to dine out tonight?

A: I’m sorry. I’m running low on funds. Next time.

Q: Riusciresti a prestarmi 20 euro?

A: No e non mi interessa se sei al verde.

Q: Could I borrow 20 euros from you?

A: No and I don’t care that you’re feeling the pinch.

As you can see from the above examples, the expression is mostly used in informal, ordinary conversations, though it is sometimes used in published pieces of work, especially in rather humorous and/or provocative newspaper articles and comic books.

– Di certo oggi i conti del Carroccio sono al verde. [From Italian newspaper La Repubblica, June 29th 2018]

– Surely, the Carroccio’s finances are strained at the moment.

Now that you have a basic grasp of how to use the expression, you might be wondering where ‘essere al verde’ came from.

You might actually be puzzled as to why Italians associate the colour green with being penniless seeing as, in the English-speaking world, the most popular hue for such delicate matters is red. 

Well, much like many other Italian idioms, ‘essere al verde’ originated from a pretty interesting ancient custom. In Renaissance-era Florence, wax candles whose bottom ends had been painted green were used to time public auctions. The latter were officially declared finished as soon as the candle would be ‘at the green’ (‘al verde’). 

Over time, the expression ‘al verde’ made its way out of Tuscan auction houses and became extremely popular all across the country as a way to say that someone was running low on something. For instance, if an army was ‘al verde di soldati’, it had very few soldiers left among its ranks. 

Eventually, the expression was also applied to personal finances – or, I should say, the dearth thereof. ‘Essere al verde di denari’ (i.e. ‘having little money left’) quickly became a widely used colloquial idiom and that’s precisely the lexical form that has made it all the way into modern Italian.

These days, native speakers are far more likely to use the shortened version of the expression (‘essere al verde’) rather than the full-length one (‘essere al verde di denari/soldi’) because, well, who likes to be long-winded when being strapped for cash?

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.