Term 1: Vecia (Venetian)
Recently Jen and I went with a friend to the funeral of her great uncle at the church of S. Zaccaria. He was the co-founder of what she claims was the first pizzeria in Venezia in the nearby campiello of S. Provolo. This is something I'll have to verify, but that's not my concern right now. Nor do I want to tell you about the mass--during which Giovanni Bellini's sublime side altarpiece was lit throughout (as opposed to the brief intervals doled out by the coin-op boxes), and the eulogy by the brother of the deceased received a hearty round of applause--but something that happened as we made our way back toward the Riva with our friend, a woman in her 30s.
Our friend knows many people in Venice, which is, after all, quite a small town, and one of them, a man of about 40, happened to pass and greeted her with "Ciao, vecia." (Pronounced something like the way an English speaker would say "vetcha.")
Our friend said ciao in return and as we walked on told us, "That's a Venetian word."
Jen said, "It sounds kind of like the Italian word that means 'old lady."
"Well, it's the Venetian version of that word," our friend told us.
"You mean he just called you an old lady!" Jen said.
"No, no, that's not what he meant. It's vecia mia--as in 'my old friend'. But we leave off mia. It's an expression of affection."
I repeated the word.
Jen turned and warned me: "Don't even think about it."
Term 2: Ciccia (Italian)
We spent 3 months last winter in Piemonte working on an organic vineyard owned by a husband and wife with two young sons. The husband often addressed his wife as "ciccia," which was not her name. We did not know much Italian and thought nothing of it--I don't think I even caught what he was saying--until a young American woman from New Jersey came to volunteer on the farm for 2 weeks.
Her father had been born and raised in Italy and from him she had acquired something very close to fluency in the language. Very close, but not exactly. Which is why one day as we were all planting young lettuce she said, with more than a little disapproval, "Have you ever noticed how X [the husband] calls his wife 'chubby' all the time?"
We had not.
"That's what ciccia means," she explained. "Actually, it's not all that nice. My father used to tell me it means something kind of like 'fat ass'".
The things we had missed at the dinner table because of our inadequate language skills! She was able to fill us in. Her father had not neglected to educate her in the full range of the Italian language.
Yet he was from the south of Italy and perhaps the usage of the same word--or at least its over- and undertones--can change from region to region.
For when I asked my cousin, an architect who lived nearby in Piemonte, about ciccia, his sense of it was nowhere near as earthy.
"Yes, ciccia," he said, "it's used a lot. It's kind of like 'dear.' It's a term of affection."
"But doesn't the word mean that you're fat?" I asked.
He thought a few moments. "Well, yes, it can mean that," he said. He pinched the skin of his waist between two fingers and said, "It can mean fleshy, yes, and to put on weight. But that meaning never occurred to me. It's just, you know, like 'dear'. It's what you call your girlfriend or your wife."
Perhaps if both of you were raised in Piemonte, for example. But for the rest of us it's probably just asking for trouble.