Monday, November 7, 2011

Some Greetings in Italian & Venetian Best Avoided

A view from more linguistically innocent times: Sandro swinging off jet lag after our arrival last November
As was the case almost a year ago, when one of the first posts I wrote was about parolaccie, our son Sandro still seems to learn most of his Italian "bad words" from a certain classmate, the son of a gondoliere. This boy has something of a school-wide reputation--one mother we know has referred to him as maleducato (rude, ill-mannered), which I think is a little severe, as he only just turned 4. I tend to think of him as a little like Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio: that is, the original rambunctious head-strong wooden scamp, not the watered-down blandly-innocent Disney version.

Not all of this kid's words are actually bad, though, some of what Sandro picks up is just a bad idea, socially-speaking. For example, before the weather here turned cold we were eating on the upper deck of a double-decker restaurant/bus parked near the beach on Lido when a pair of young brothers familiar from the playground came up and greeted Sandro.

Sandro replied glibly with: "Ciao, puzzolenti!"

The boys, so sweet to begin with, turned away, looking troubled, and walked off. My wife and I, not recognizing the word Sandro used, had no idea what happened. Sandro, quite pleased with the exchange, offered no explanation.

When we got home and looked in the dictionary, we discovered the two brothers hadn't appreciated being addressed as "stinkies" or "smellies."

Nor, as Sandro would soon realize (after ignoring our warnings), do new acquaintances take warmly to being called "brutto" (ugly) or "cattivo" (bad). Though, as I noticed the other day, Sandro's friend still addresses other kids as all of the above and--for all his boisterous charm--only really manages to pull it off with his close friends, such as Sandro, who understand him.

But by far the worst form of address Sandro has employed was entirely of his own devising. One day as we walked into the city center Sandro was in a particularly gregarious mood. We'd pass this or that woman, or pair or trio of women, and he'd happily address some greeting to her or them that we didn't catch at first. We noticed it was only women he was addressing for some reason, but didn't know why until we finally understood what he was saying:

"Ciao, cocona!" Or "Ciao, cocone!"

This was actually rather shocking.

It's a Venetian word he learned during an August of swimming and bathing and running around naked with a female Venetian friend and classmate. It's the term Venetians use with children to refer to the vagina.

It, along with its male complement, pipoto, were, along with their referents, sources of great interest and amusement to a pair of skinny-dipping three-year-olds. No surprise in that. But that Sandro should, by a curious and cunning process of induction, decide to apply (and address!) the term to women he passed on the street...!

And thus began a new discussion whose underlying theme was that as great and exciting as it is to learn and use new words, it's also important to learn the proper context in which they might be employed--productively and without offense. 

It's such an interesting phase of language acquisition, contextual ramifications such as these, for anyone--not just kids--learning a new language. Such subtleties--each word's place within a social-cultural-historical web--are reminders of why the most truly poetic works of poetry can't really be translated.  

That's one way of looking at it. Another is simply that Sandro has, in just a year, become more crudely Venetian than we ever could have expected. After all, these are the extremely blunt people who still call the little area beside one end of the Rialto Bridge where prostitutes used to congregate "Fondamenta Traghetto del Buso"--or "of the hole".


  1. Oh, any word can sound as a harmless and almost endearing slur in a little boy's mouth but when adults try to sound more idiomatic in a language they didn't grew up with it could be really insulting. My Italian girlfriend was appalled when I called her - jockingly - a gnocca. I thought since the word derives from a little dumpling it stresses her cuteness but no, it's much more appropriate for some Jersey Shore bimbo than a really pretty girl with a good job and a fluency in 5 languages.

    1. Ah, Sasha, when it comes to Italian terms to apply to one's female beloved perhaps it's best if we don't stray too far from "bellisima." I don't want to think about what my wife would do if I called her gnocca! You're very brave!