ciao, slave!

After a blogging break, I figured there’d be no better way to say “hello” than to say “goodbye.”

Linguistically, the phenomenon is not uncommon, actually. Hawaiian has aloha and Hebrew has shalom, for instance. And Italian of course, has ciao, which has been widely taken up across different tongues as an informal and familiar greeting for “hi” and “bye.” This includes many parts of South America, as you may be well familiar. I heard it quite frequently last week in Chile as chau, often reduplicated as chau chau and sometimes spelled as chao.

From Slaves to Kings

You may also be familiar that the  Italian ciao goes back to a Venetian salutation of schiavo, part of an expression literally meaning “I am your slave” but functioning, as many note, as a good-will way of saying “at your service.” The word spread during extensive Italian immigration during the 19th and 20th centuries, especially to Latin America, although fashion may have motivated its English donning. Ernest Hemingway gets the first English-language citation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in his 1929 A Farewell to Arms. 

But etymologically, ciao gives up on any quick hello for what turns out to be its own kind of a long goodbye. See, the Venetian schiavo is indebted to the Medieval Latin sclavus, itself meaning “slave” but originally referring to Slavs, “the Slavonic peoples in parts of central Europe having been reduced to a servile condition by conquest,” the Oxford English Dictionary explains.

So, Slavs became slaves in deed and in word, and, in case you did not already make the connection, our own English slave is also so derived, cited all the way back in the 13th century. While my own Slavic bloodline boils at the thought of this fact, etymology may yet prove redemptive: Slav, related to terms like Slovene and Slovak as well as the name suffix of –slav, might go back to a proto-meaning of “fame” or “glory,” from the Proto-Indo-European *kleu-, “to hear.” The connecting sense is of a much talked-about reputation.

“Fame” is no small matter for both Indo-European culture–and language. Typically, historical and comparative linguists reconstruct single words, such as *kleu-. But sometimes they can put forth actual phrases, *klewos ndhgwithom, “imperishable fame.” As the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots explains:

The most ancient texts in Indo-European languages, such as the Vedic hymns of ancient India, the Homeric epics, the Germanic sagas, and Old Irish praise-poetry, all demonstrate that the perpetuation of the fame of the warrior or king was of critical importance to early Indo-European society.

Ciao: not so servile after all. We have plenty more etymological surprises–and doodles–to come as the Mashed Radish closes out 2014.

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