Venice is certainly the strangest and most fascinating of all the cities in Italy: is it because there are no cars and — not counting tourists and vaporetti (water taxis) — the city can be uncannily silent? Is it because, during wintertime, the fog creates a magical mystery around the streets, the squares (calli and campielli) 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 mystical island city? It’s hard to be certain, but the only things 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.
Today, I won’t bring you to the most touristic places such as Piazza San Marco, il Ponte di Rialto and il Ponte dei Sospiri (Saint Mark’s Square, Rialto Bridge and Bridge of Sighs), although I highly recommend you to go and have a look at them sooner or later. But if you’d kindly follow me, I will reveal the city through its dialect. Did you know that some words from the Venetian dialect are not only official words included in the Italian dictionary, they are also known and used internationally?
The first one on the list is the most famous: ciao (s’ciavo) 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 expanded around the world and is now used in several languages with different variations.
Other words that come from the Venetian dialect (which themselves originate from Latin and Arabic) and used all the time in English without anyone noticing. All of them relate to the history of the island, primarily its naval tradition and legacy of its maritime republic: gondola, lido, lagoon (from the Venetian word laguna which comes from Latin lacuna, empty space), arsenal (from the Venetian word arsenale, which comes from the Arabic Dār al-ṣināʿa, “house of industry”).
Now, follow me and discover five far more unexpected examples: Here’s the list of my 5 favorite Venetian words that made it into English.
The origin of the wooden puppets controlled by strings can be traced back to a wedding in Venice 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 to 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 needy girls 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.
However, this tradition quickly became a problem: The city’s aristocrats, desperate to show off their power and wealth, competed bitterly 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 create them in miniature to be sold on the streets as souvenirs.
And the “Mariona” became a “Marionetta.”
During its period of maximum prosperity in the 16th century, Venice was not only powerful from a commercial and cultural point of view, but it was also 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 very 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, golden and silver marbles that were 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 your tax returns look like fun, but the aim was to guarantee that no influential family had any more say than another 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 so 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) and 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 a typical 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 themselves and with it the word pantalon. The word made it to Britain, along with an extra O, as pantaloon, but the ravages of time, or lazy speakers, eventually eroded the word down to pants. In the U.K. pants now means “underpants,” but is still a synonym for “trousers” in the U.S.
When you go to the newsstand to buy your daily paper, you should know that you are, in a certain way, perpetuating a Venetian tradition from the 16th century. At that time, Venice was involved in a war against the Ottoman Empire and wanted to keep the citizens updated with the 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.