September 23, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Lo English

By |2018-03-21T18:50:33+01:00August 5th, 2012|Essays|
Bad Boy Mario and the velina, oops, "showgirl," in happier times

t takes only a football match to show that the trade in words is alive and kicking. English becomes Italian, and vice-versa.

Thanks are owed in part to former England coach Fabio Capello, who on a salary of a million pounds per annum evidently still found an English teacher unaffordable. Thus, catenaccio entered the vocabulary of Wayne Rooney and Company, proof that a 600-word command of English is apparently more than sufficient, at least for footballing purposes.

Catenaccio, which in commentary-speak means “men behind the ball,” a classic defensive tactic that plays hoards of players in a straight line, requiring a “bad boy” like striker Mario Balotelli to break it.

The word originally meant the metal rod behind a door — or porta, also the Italian for goal-mouth (the porter or portiere doubling semantically as goalkeeper, making the door or goal, impregnable). Fa il catenaccio, a friend tells me, is what his grandmother instructed him to do before every bedtime in his native Terni, lest intruders break in. Lock technology has since improved.

But word watching doesn’t end with football.

Moving from one Super Mario one to another, consider Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, whose ongoing heroics to tackle lo spread have made headlines since last December. Hardly a column inch passes where the borrowed English word doesn’t appear in Italian text. Lo spread this, lo spread that.

The intransigent Anglo-Saxon cognate — spread — carries hints, maybe, of the Sack of Rome, the graffiti of whose northern mercenaries — the notorious landsknechte — still scar Palazzo Farnesina’s idyllic frescoes.

The Italian lo attempts tries taming a phenomenon that became a sort of lexical ritornello, or recurring gag, at this year’s San Remo Music Festival. As if aiming at the nation’s funny bone, the comedian hosting the ceremonies merely had to mention the monosyllable lo and the audience broke into peals of semi-masochistic laughter.

Italian verbs may be conjugated left, right and center, producing a generous plethora of 200-word sentences, as learners of Italian know to their cost. But “spread” is stubborn, and without any mollifying subjunctive forms. The verb produces but two variants — “spreads” or “spreading.” It’s in the same group of “no-changers” as “hit-hit-hit” and “cut-cut-cut.”

Past, present or future, active or passive, perfect or imperfect, lo spread remains lo spread. But it is the weighty Italian equivalent — l’impennata del differenziale tra Btp e bund tedeschi (“the soaring interest rate gap between Italian and German bonds”) — that pushes even practiced politician to choose the more manageable English sound bite.

Italy’s sad economic times are a far cry from when Florence’s florin was Europe’s hardest currency, when Ragusa’s famed merchant ships, argosies, were the etymologically super-carriers of the day, and Italian banchieri — soon to become known as bankers — could make or break kingdoms and principalities from the Thames to the Baltic.

Also courtesy of Monti (as opposed to his embarrassingly monoglot predecessor), there’s the “anti-spread,” or il firewall, yet another English borrowing. As a financial line of defense, il firewall is intended to do for Italy’s economy what catenaccio did for England’s goalmouth. Or was supposed to do, until Capello’s team lost in a penalty shootout to Italy at Euro 2012.

Some expressions can send a non-Italian speaker reaching for the dictionary. There’s la spending review and the constant use of governance, the latter seeming like a borrowing too far. A recent Monti statement even contained the phrase: le fluttuazioni dello spread.

The grandiose and abstract Latinism earthed in concise Anglo-Saxon encapsulates the differences between the two tongues in a way that borders on the Shakespearian. The Bard, with a squiggle of his quill, also mixed languages, shamelessly borrowing to produce “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” “my hand will … the multitudinous seas incarnadine” and “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer.”

The word trade never stops.

Nor are language borrowings limited to sports and politics.

The very Italian TV starlet Raffaella Fico is no longer described in the vernacular — velina — literally a carbon copy — but as a “showgirl.” The announcement of her pregnancy, she said, was what inspired the alleged father of the child — Balotelli — to put two goals into the back of the German net. Of Fico, one report stated: L’ex gieffina ha annunciato a Balotelli l’intenzione di non rifiutare il test di Dna come da lui chiesto. (Roughly, “The ex ‘Big Brother’ contestant — i.e. from GF, “Grande Fratello” — has told Balotelli that she will not refuse a DNA test that he has requested.”)

As Shakespeare put it, injecting Anglo-Saxon with then freshly-coined Latin: “The course of true love never did run smooth.”

About the Author:

Martin Bennett was born in Birmingham, England. He has lived and worked in West Africa and the Middle East. He arrived in Italy in 2001 and now lives in Rome where he teaches at the University of Tor Vergata.