Let’s Go to Italy


“You may have the universe if I may have Italy” 
Giuseppe Verdi

Venice Road

Several years ago, I organized a family vacation to a language school in the heart of Italy.  I fell in love with the food, idyllic countryside, the art and architecture.  Yet, it was the people and their la bella lingua that captured my heart.  We spent four hours in class, with 20 other students who came from the far reaches of the globe – Poland to Australia, Canada to Argentina.

It is one thing to holiday in a country, quite another to integrate into a vibrantly diverse society.  Mornings were spent in the classroom and the afternoons were designated cultural lessons. The evenings were engaged in perambulating through the ever busy town centre.   We were not allowed to speak English.  The first week was a scramble to understand simple instructions.  When did classes start? Where could we buy groceries?  It was the most fun I had in years.  It was a new beginning, without any cues upon which to depend.

The words that come from Italy tell colourful stories.  The money-changers of Italy brought us the term, “bankrupt.”  Each money-changer had a bench called a “banca” used to place money reserved for lending.  Woe betide the money-changer who experienced financial failure.  The bench,“banca,” was “rotta” or broken and the money-changer was said to be a “banca rotta,” or “bankrupt.”

“Fiasco,” which signifies a complete failure, comes from Venice, known for finely crafted Venetian glass bottles.  The glassblower will only tolerate perfect creations; if a flaw is detected, the bottle is turned into a common flask, called in Italian, “fiasco.”

Quarantine comes from the Italian “quaranta,” meaning “forty,” representing the number of days a ship, considered to carry an infectious disease, was forced to remain out of port.  The unfortunate Niccolo Machiavelli of Florence, who wrote “The Prince” has come to be associated with “evil’ (Machiavellian) and the “ends justify the means.”  On the other extreme, the “Pope” comes from the Italian “papa,” meaning father.

“The name of Italy has magic in its very syllables.” 
Mary Shelley


Gifts from France


“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” 
 Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast


I struggled valiantly in high school to learn the French language.   As a teenager, I would imagine myself walking on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées confidently speaking French with people who I would meet along the way.  I defined French as elegant sophistication.  It is a Romance language after all.   I never mastered the language, yet I can say that I use many French words in my daily exchanges.  Their background stories are as fascinating as the language from which they come.

When you hold something in “abeyance,” you are drawing from the French “bayer” meaning to “gape,” as if you were holding your mouth open for an event to occur.  When you bid your friend goodbye using the phrase “adieu,” you are saying “I commend you to God.”  Adroit, which signifies nimble or skilled, comes from the French “à droite” which means “to the right.”  It was believed, at on time, only right-handed people were competent.

Under “curfew” has a serious overtone, yet its origin is rather innocuous.  Curfew comes from the French termcouvre feu,” which simply means “cover the fire” or lights out, time for sleep.  “Exchequer” comes from the old French word “eschequier,” meaning chess or checkerboard.  The English borrowed the word during the time of Edward I of England.  A special court, convened to administer the King’s revenue, used a special table covered with a checkered cloth.  My personal favourite, is the word “puppy” which comes from the French “poupée” meaning “doll.”   A young dog is seen as something playful or a plaything.

Vive la langue française!

“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life.” 

Thomas Jefferson