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.

m ∫ r ∫


When things get “hairy,” U.S. Presidents like to appoint czars.

Presently, Obama is considering an Ebola czar, but the executive branch post is said to date back to Woodrow Wilson, who appointed an industry czar during World War I. The term, of course, refers to no official title; it has served as a media shorthand for these particular policy coordinators. Most famous perhaps is Nixon’s drug czar. Among many others, FDR had his rubber czar, LBJ his poverty czar, Clinton his AIDS czar, Bush his terrorism czar–the list truly goes on.


Historically, czars–or properly, tsars–were Russian emperors, technically beginning with Ivan III in 1462, formally adopted by Ivan IV in 1547, and ending with the overthrow of Nicolas II during the Russian Revolution in 1917. The word was adopted from Slavic languages, like the Old Church Slavonic tsesari, which ultimately represented the Latin Caesar. The Slavic tongues likely borrowed the word from Germanic languages, such as Gothic’s kaisar (cf. German’s Kaiser), where the term referred to a “king” or “emperor.”  And according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word “is generally held to be the earliest Latin word adopted in Germanic.”

The spelling is unusual. As the OED observes:

The spelling with cz- is against the usage of all Slavonic languages; the word was so spelt by Herberstein, Rerum Moscovit. Commentarii 1549, the chief early source of knowledge as to Russia in Western Europe, whence it passed into the Western Languages generally…


The original Caesar, of course, refers to Julius Caesar. In Ancient Rome, Caesar was his “cognomen,” initially a nickname that evolved into a hereditary addition. The original meaning of Caesar is as lost as his empire, but there is a tradition that it was taken from caesaries, “long, flowing hair,” (Traupman) either due to the fact that Caesar was born with a full head of hair or that his family line was, as was the man himself, prone to balding.

Others argue that the root of the name is from the past participle form of the Latin verb “to cut,” caesus, referring to the legend that the future emperor was “cut out” from his mother’s womb.

Today, a C-section, or Caesarian section is reputedly so derived from the legend–though improbable, as it would have been lethal to the very mother that was alive well into the height of Caesar’s power. And the Caesar in Caesar Salad is named for one, Caesar Cardini, whose given credit for his eponymous dish–concocted, perhaps surprisingly, in Tijuana.

Salad? There was a food czar for that under FDR. Mexico? Yep, Clinton and Obamaborder czars. And these conflicting accounts–how do we regulate all this intelligence? Bush appointed regulatory and intelligence czars. Now, if only the president needed someone to coordinate all these words…

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