March 4, 2024 | Rome, Italy

A jester’s glossary

By |2018-07-01T18:57:55+02:00June 28th, 2018|"Notebook"|
A key part perk inn the life of Italy's sycophantic middlemen is money.

veryone knows that learning a foreign language exposes you to another culture. New words open doors to new ideas and things.

But sometimes, it works the other way around. New ideas and things call for foreign words to step in when there is no good native equivalent.

When coffee still came from the office vending machine, no one needed a word to describe the person who made coffee to your specifications in your favorite café. But with designer coffees came the need to spruce up. “Coffee-maker” wouldn’t do. Nor would the average-sounding waiter, waitress or server. Italian supplied the missing word: “barista.”

Likewise, Italian can bring clarity to America’s ongoing and complex political drama with words that perfectly describe numerous characters that lack good English nouns to describe them. The James Comey/Rudolph Giuliani contretemps has brought out consigliere, whose Mafia associations many Americans know by heart. But there are many more. I leave it to the reader to identify to whom or what the following words and phrases might apply.

Elezione bulgara or cose bulgare: An election situation in which the winner doesn’t reflect majority opinion, and there has been no public debate. The term refers to Communist Bulgaria, the most slavish of the Soviet Union’s satellites, where Todor Zhivkov’s

Communist party routinely received 99 percent of the vote.

Palazzinaro: A pejorative term for a nouveau riche real estate developer who operates on the fringes of legality. The word originated in Rome to describe those who profited from the unregulated and corruption-filled building boom of the 1960s.

Faccendiere: A combination of a fixer, factotum and professional go-between or dealmaker. The facciendiere operates behind the scenes and is usually a freelancer who operates only for his or her own benefit. While the faccendiere may become a fall guy, a good faccendiere has carefully hoarded dirt on all the game’s players and won’t be anyone’s fall guy.

Portaborsa: Literally “bag-carrier.” The portaborsa is the loyal collaborator who dedicates his life — often starting young — to his or her boss. The portaborsa, not to be confused with the American debt-collecting bagman, usually basks in the boss’s reflected glory and privileges. Unlike the faccendiere, the portaborsa is no freelancer, and taking the fall is the flip side of the portaborsa’s Faustian bargain.

Generone: Although flaunting wealth and power are the generone’s trademark attribute, the generone is not merely a nouveau riche figure. In fact, a generone may not actually be wealthy, just politically powerful. Like palazzinaro, generone originated in postwar Rome as part a new and cynical vocabulary intended to illustrate the ostentatious challengers to Italy’s old aristocracy-based order.

A palazzinaro, a word with a long history that came up often early into the Berlusconi era, is a real estate developer who operates on the fringes of legality. He might even have political ambitions. Ring any bells?

Attaccabrighe: This is a handy noun used to describe a person who seeks out or picks fights, or takes outrageous or provocative positions just for the sheer pleasure of belligerence.

Clientilismo: This word originated in ancient Rome, where a client was someone who exchanged services for the protection of a powerful or wealthy patron. Today, clientilismo is a socio-economic system based on favors and influence peddling; mutual nepotism is a prime example. Clientelismo is a broader system with a tighter web than America’s familiar “you scratch my back…” While this is how things work in some countries, the connotation is negative, even in Italy.

Figlio di papà: Literally “papa’s boy.” While in English we have “mamma’s boy” the masculine corollary is meaningless. In Italian, however, a “papa’s boy” is the son who gets ahead solely because of his wealthy or powerful father’s influence, thanks to clientilismo.

Casino: Modern Italian differentiates between two words that at their root both mean “little house.”

A casino — with the accent on the final syllable —is what we would call a gambling casino in English. Casino, with the accent on the second syllable (the “s” is pronounced like a “z”) means whorehouse or bordello. Outside the context of sex for hire, a casino is a complicated mess, such as an out-of-control party or an airline hub during a severe snowstorm. (Italians also use “bordello” the same way.) Before Italy’ so-called ‘houses of tolerance’ (brothels) were shut down in the 1960s, they must have been hotbeds of chaos and drama.

Pornostar: Although it has all the components of Google English, the “pornostar” has a very Italian twist that dispenses with half-apologetic political correctness, as in “adult film actress.” In Italy, a pornostar is someone with agency, career choice, and success. In the 1990s, pornostar Hungarian-born Ilona Staller, “Cicciolina,” was elected to Italy’s parliament. Another pornostar, Moana Pozzi, was active in the women’s movement and a prominent TV personality.

At this point, the United States could do a lot worse than electing Stormy Daniels.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."