What’s in an Italian name?

  • Themes: Italy

The endless Italian genius for naming things and people has found plenty of space in modern English.

Old men in conversation in Puglia, Italia.
Old men in conversation in Puglia, Italia. Credit: John Heseltine / Alamy Stock Photo

The other day I was reading Jeff Biggers’ brilliant book, In Sardinia, and came across an intriguing piece of etymology. The word ‘sardonic’, I learned, is derived from the name of that Mediterranean island. Back in around 560AD, Procopius (historian of Justinian’s reign) described a common Sardinian herb, the ‘cursed buttercup’ (or ranunculus sceleratus): when people tasted it, he wrote, they had fatal convulsions that had the appearance of embittered laughter.

It got me thinking about how many Italian place names have entered the English lexicon. Most people know that the word ‘jeans’ derives from Genoa, the Ligurian port town that made fustian strides using five pockets and a rectangle on the back of the belt loop called a ‘salpa’ (a sail). ‘Jeans’ was the anglicisation of the French ‘de Genes’ – from Genoa. (Denim, of course, is the English way of saying ‘de Nimes’, the French city that pioneered the tough, twilled fabric later made famous by Levi-Strauss.)

There are many words whose Italian origins are less known: Faience, the term for ceramics that use a glossy, metallic glaze (rather like maiolica) comes from the Italian town Faenza. The word ‘pistol’ comes, some claim, from the Tuscan city of Pistoia, famous for its gun-smithing.

‘Milliner’ (and all its derivatives) comes from ‘milaner’, the English way of depicting a citizen of Milan, a place renowned in the Middle Ages for selling silks, ribbons and bonnets. It was common for textiles to be identified with the towns from which they came: the hemp jacket from Carmagnola, a riverside town in Piedmont, became famous among the French revolutionaries, the Sans-Culottes, as the Carmagnole. It even inspired a bloodthirsty, anti-aristocratic song of the same name.

Perhaps these place names get absorbed into other languages because they sound exotic and suggestive. C.S. Lewis was inspired by the resonant symbolism and meaning of Narni, in Umbria: he turned it into Narnia in his ‘chronicles’. The town, reputed to be the geographical centre of Italy, had an ancient stone table just off the via Flaminia that was used for animal sacrifices (possibly inspiring the setting for Aslan’s self-sacrifice in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe), and the town’s name must have appealed to the Christian apologist: it meant ‘flowing water’.

In a way, it’s the place names that have entered Italian, rather than English, that are more amusing. ‘Sbolognare’ is a verb that meant, originally, to off-load something illegally because the city of Bologna used to be notorious for counterfeit gold and dodgy coinage. Nowadays it means more avoidance or shirking: if someone has wiggled out of a commitment in Italy you would say they’ve ‘sbolognato’ it.

Battle sites often enter everyday diction, too. Caporetto – now in Slovenia and called Kobarid – was Italy’s most infamous disaster of the First World War, leading to the death or capture of over 300,000 troops and the suicide of the horrified General Giovanni Villani. Caporetto is now invoked (usually in the context of politics or football) to suggest an unprecedented disaster.

Another military mess up is commonly invoked in Italian. Amba Aradan is a table mountain 500 kilometres north of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. In February 1936, Italian troops fought a chaotic battle there involving shifting allegiances and chemical gas attacks. One often hears ‘ambaradan’ used today to describe simply a mess or total confusion. The British, of course, commemorate not their defeats but only their victories. The bucolic-sounding London suburb of Maida Vale is so called because of the forgotten Battle of Maida (in 1806, in Calabria) during the Napoleonic wars.

Some of the most colourful phrases naturally emerge when you’re playing football. I’m often amused in our five-a-side games by the description of someone who doesn’t pass the ball – and there are a few – as ‘being a Venetian’. I had assumed that inhabitants of la Serenissima were thought to be ball-hogs just because passing it always incurred the danger of the ball going into the canals (as happened in the Alberto Sordi film, Venezia, la luna e tu). But I’ve also heard that the saying is down to a single match (Venezia-Juventus, on 18 March 1962) in which the Venetian players were so individualistic that they kept dribbling rather than passing.

Perhaps the most amusing of all the place-name verbifications is ‘to do a Portuguese’. In common Italian parlance it means to freeload and there are many theories about how the phrase came into being: the most accepted version is that, in 1514, Pope Leo X repaid the King of Portugal for the gift of an elephant by allowing the entirety of his embassy free entry to theatres, hostelries and hotels. The concession was so exploited by Romans pretending to be Portuguese that the Pope had to withdraw the privileges. A similar version, from the 18th Century, suggests that the Pope offered Portuguese ambassadorial staff free entry to the Teatro Argentina and, once again, hundreds of people feigned Portuguese nationality.

The irony about that phrase is that many Italians, who don’t know its origin, assume it’s a comment on the free-loading habits of their Mediterranean cousins. Whereas in reality it’s about the opposite: about how cheapskate Romans were trying to imitate them. Each time I explain that they laugh at me sardonically, as if they had eaten the ‘cursed buttercup’.


Tobias Jones