Venice is possibly the strangest and most fascinating city in all of Italy. Is it because of the lack of cars — not counting tourists and vaporetti (water taxis) — making the city uncannily quiet? Is it because of the winter fog creating a magical mystery in the streets, the squares and the canals? Is it because of the fantastic Carnival that attracts thousands of tourists every year? Is it because of the legends that permeate every corner of this island city? It’s hard to be certain, but the only thing we know for sure is that Venice is unique (we’re ignoring the cheap imitations, right Las Vegas?) and that you should visit her at least once in your lifetime. But even if you’ve never visited the city, you’ve likely been touched by her linguistic beauty. Venetian words have had an outsized impact on other languages, including English.
Today, I won’t bring you to the most touristy places of Venice, such as Piazza San Marco, il Ponte di Rialto and il Ponte dei Sospiri (though I highly recommend you go and have a look at them sooner or later). If you’d kindly follow me, I will reveal the city through its dialect.
The first entry on this list is the most famous: ciao (s’ciavo). This Venetian word is a contraction of schiavo (“slave”), and using it as a greeting expresses loyalty and trust. Saying ciao is a way to tell the other person, “I’m at your service.”
Surprisingly, ciao only became part of the official Italian language at the beginning of the 20th century, though it quickly spread around the world and is now used in dozens of languages, albeit with variations.
Ciao might be the most obvious Venetian word, but there are many, many others (which themselves originate from Latin and Arabic) used all the time in English without anyone noticing. Several of them relate to the history of the island, including its naval tradition and its legacy as a maritime republic. You’ve probably encountered the words gondola, lido and lagoon (from the Venetian word laguna which comes from Latin lacuna, meaning “empty space”), as well as arsenal (from the Venetian word arsenale, which comes from the Arabic Dār al-ṣināʿa, meaning “house of industry”).
And the examples don’t end there. Here’s a list of my five favorite Venetian words that are used in English.
Five Venetian Words We Use In English
The origin of wooden puppets controlled by strings can be traced back to a Venetian wedding in the 10th century. According to the tradition at the time, dozens of couples would be married at the same time in one big ceremony. A corteo acqueo (“water parade”) brought the brides to the Church of San Pietro in Castello where the grooms were waiting. But in the year 944, tragedy struck: Pirates from Trieste kidnapped all of the brides (and their dowries)! Thankfully, the story has a happy ending. The brave Venetians were able to capture the pirates and rescue the brides unharmed.
To show gratitude to the Vergine della Serenissima — “The Virgin Mary of Venice” (la Serenissima is Venice’s nickname and means “the serene”) — the city decided to commemorate the event and asked the noble and rich families to pay for the dowry of 12 girls in need every year. The girls were called the Marie and they were paraded through the city to honor the bravery of the Venetian soldiers and the generosity of the Virgin Mary.
This tradition quickly became a problem. The city’s aristocrats, desperate to show off their power and wealth, competed to outspend each other on the lucky girls’ dowries. To maintain the tradition without the nobility going bankrupt and plunging la Serenissima into financial ruin, the Republic of Venice decided to substitute the Marie with giant wooden dolls in 1271. The cost-effective bride alternatives were soon known as Marione (a Mariona is a “big Maria”).
The business instinct of the Venetian merchants played a very important role. Since the huge dolls were very popular, they decided to recreate them in miniature to be sold on the streets as souvenirs. And the Mariona became a Marionetta (“little Maria”).
During its period of maximum prosperity in the 16th century, Venice was not only powerful from a commercial and cultural point of view, but also known as one of the most influential political powers in the Mediterranean. The Serenissima Republic was so precise and strict in the election of the Doge (the chief of state) that it invented a complicated method to assure transparency and impartiality during the selection of electors.
The cornerstone of the entire operation was represented by the so-called ballotte, which were golden and silver marbles that would be inserted in a sealed box and chosen by the Senators at random to determine who would be an elector in the next session. The procedure had several steps and was complicated enough to make modern tax returns look like a good time, but the aim was to guarantee that no influential family had more say than any other in a vote.
Why are the words “ballot” and ballottage used respectively in English and French nowadays? The reason is very simple. In the 18th century, when the infant republics of the United States and France had to choose their election system, the Venetian voting system was the only example on offer (don’t forget, representational republics weren’t widespread at the time).
A very famous Italian expression says, Fatta la legge, trovato l’inganno (“You issue the law, and they find the loophole”). This saying perfectly applies to what happened with the ballotte system: to cheat democracy, the Senators used to meet and plot in a garden close to Palazzo Ducale (where the elections would take place). The name of the park was “Brolio” and being “in Brolio” became synonymous with scheming and corruption, and was quickly Italianized to imbroglio.
Pantalone is the name of an archetypal character of the Commedia dell’Arte, often associated with the Arlecchino. He’s a greedy merchant with a very recognizable outfit: a money purse around his waist; a black cape and mask; a scarlet jacket; and tight, ankle-length trousers. The trousers became known as pantaloni after the character. This new item of clothing became very popular among the Venetian working class in the 16th century (whereas the nobles were still wearing knee-breeches).
Pantaloni was also the nickname that the French gave to Venetian peasants because of the ubiquity of the new style of trousers in the city. The French adopted the pantaloni style, and with it the word pantalon. The word made it to Britain, along with an extra O, as “pantaloon,” but the ravages of time eroded the word down to “pants.” In the United Kingdom, “pants” now means underpants, but in the United States it’s still a synonym for “trousers.”
Last but not least, my favorite of the Venetian words on this list. If you’re someone who still reads a print newspaper (or even if you read the news online), you’re perpetuating a Venetian tradition from the 16th century. At that time, Venice was involved in a war with the Ottoman Empire and wanted to keep the citizens updated with news from the front lines. The Republic thought it was a good idea to publish short magazines (maximum eight pages) and sell them for the very cheap price of two coins. And can you guess the name of that specific coin? Gaxeta! The name entered the Italian language as gazzetta and, before long, was rolling off the presses all over the world.
Header Photo by Imad Abdulkarim on Unsplash.