‘Ditto,’ ‘skirmish,’ ‘zany’ and other words with surprising Italian roots

The passage of the Republican bill in the House to repeal Obamacare tees up a skirmish in the Senate—oh, allow me to put aside the newsy connections today, as urgent as the issue is. I’m off to Italy for a week or so.

Italian has given English a wealth of words for music (allegro, falsetto, piano, violin), art (chiaroscuro, virtuoso), politics (totalitarianism and fascism begin in Italian), and, of course, food (pasta, pizza, spaghetti, zucchini). Many of these words, especially the likes of chiaroscuro or pizza, we may recognize, linguistically or culturally, as Italian. But there are many other everyday words we owe to Italian that are hiding in plain sight. Here are a few choice ones:

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Bad traffic: Blame the Italians? (Pixabay)

Charlatan

A charlatan, or “fraudster,” comes into English in the early 1600s from the French charlatan, in turn from the Italian ciarlatano. At the root of this word is ciarlare, “to babble” or “prattle,” possibly imitating the sound of a duck. (A synonym for charlatan, quack, is shortened from quacksalver, literally a “hawker of salves,” with quack ultimately echoing ducks.) Originally, charlatans referred to hoaxers who loudly boasted about their “medicines” in the streets.

Ditto

Ditto means “said” in Italian dialect, ultimately from the Latin dicere, “to say.” When borrowed into English in the early 1600s, ditto was used, as in Italian, to avoid repeating the names of months in a document, e.g., the first of November and the eighth ditto, with ditto functioning like aforesaid, as the word was so extended in English accounts and lists. Have you ever you used the double quotation mark (“) as a shorthand for repeating an item in a list? You can call those ditto marks. Among other uses, ditto went on to refer to “a copy” (cf. Ditto machine), to say ditto to express agreement, and as a colloquial way to indicate “the same.”

Fracas

A fracas, “noisy quarrel,” enters English in the early 1700 from the French fracas (crash, tumult, fuss), ultimately taken from the Italian fracassare, “to make an uproar,” literally “to break into pieces.” Fracassare is said to derive from the Latin infra- (below) and quassare (to shake; source of quash), making fracas a sort of “under-crashing.”

Porcelain

Again via French, porcelain, attested in English since the early 1500s, ultimately hails from the Italian porcellana, “cowrie shell,” with the luster of the mollusk eventually evoking the sheen of chinaware. But you might not want to put this on your wedding registry: The Italian porcellana is based on porcella, “piglet”. Apparently, the fissure of the cowrie shell was thought to resemble the vulva of a pig. The Oxford English Dictionary enlightens us that porcus—Latin for “pig” and source of the Italian porcella and English pork—was also slang for “female genitalia” in Classical Latin.

Skirmish

Back in the late 1300s, a skirmish was a small clash between troops. Once again through the medium of French and after a series of sound and spelling changes, skirmish comes from the Italian scaramuccia, whose origin is obscure, though possibly borrowed from a Germanic root meaning “protect” or “defend.” Skirmish underwent yet more changes in English when it was altered in the 15th century to scrimmage. A scaramouch, or “cowardly braggart,” is also from the Italian scaramuccia, used as the name of a stock character in historic Italian comedy.

Traffic

Traffic is yet another word that follows the French-Italian-Latin etymological lineage. Long before it was extended to congested roadways, traffic named “commerce” and “trade,” first appearing in the early 1500s. English borrowed traffic from the Medieval French trafique, borrowed from the Italian traffico and trafficare, used of busy Mediterranean waterways. The ulterior origin of trafficare, “to conduct trade,” is unclear. Some etymologists suspect the traf- element is from the Latin trans, “across,” and the -ficare base is from facere, “to do or make,” à la transact. Others suppose the –ficare comes from fricare, “to rub” (cf. friction), with a sense of “handling (goods).”

Zany

Zany also debuts as zani or zanni on the stage, a stock character who aped other actors in Italian comedy. The Italian word may be a Venetian dialectical form of Gianni, a pet form of Giovanni (John), used as an everyman stand-in like the English Jack. Zany starts its antics in English in the late 1500s, originally a noun for a comic character attending on a clown in a performance and known for his foolish mimicry. By the early 1600s, the ridiculous and eccentric behavior of a zany lent itself to the adjective zany.

Mashed Radish will be back later in the month. Ciao! Speaking of which, you might want to revisit my post on the incredible origin of ciao to tide you over in the meantime.

m ∫ r ∫

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