Italians have a puzzling, seemingly love-hate relationship with the English language. They print English words all over their clothing, for example, yet the words are often spelled wrong or the sentences make no sense. This is actually part of a larger trend that sees Italians consistently, unabashedly doing whatever they please with the English language. Or, as the author of the blog Inglisc: Mèd Een Eetaly put it:
The arrogance of Italian business owners, university professors, politicians, translation agencies, cartoonists, writers, and website developers who treat English as though it were Pig Latin: the sort of thing anyone can pick up in about a half-hour.
A recurring example I like to give, and one that made a lightbulb go off for Andrea, is “Next Opening” splashed across the window of a yet-to-be-opened store. What they meant to write of course was "Opening Soon" but confused the two different English translations for the Italian word prossimo — "next" and "soon."
Equally disheartening is the verbal shrug Italians give in response to being informed of such an error. They really are rather appallingly blasé about all manner of linguistic errors when it comes to using English in public. This in turn relates to a larger sociological phenomenon that Italian expat scholars Diego Gambetta and Gloria Origgi analyzed in their refreshingly non-dry paper "L-worlds: The curious preference for low quality and its norms" from 2009.
Essentially, Gambetta and Origgi argue that Italians are invested in keeping a sort of low-quality ("L") status quo in their dealings with others, be they professional or personal. So while they may promise high quality ("H") in their exchanges (described as anything from agreeing to meet at a certain time to, say, commissioning a translation), they rarely deliver it. What’s more, this is bewilderingly, widely accepted.
On the face of it, it looks as if they sell each other a lemon, and yet: • Nobody seems to complain. • When we got L in return for giving H and complained, the L-party seemed more annoyed than apologetic. They seem to treat this as excessive fussiness. • H-doers do not seem to receive much admiration, quite the contrary, they elicit suspicion. As an Italian university ‘barone’ once put it, “You don’t understand Diego, when you are good [at your work] you must apologise.” • ‘Italians’ end up in LL even if they are playing a repeated game and plan to trade with each other in the future. In other words, they are not deterred from dealing with each other again and do not expect the other party to be deterred by getting L. • They do not abandon the H-rhetoric, and, more or less explicitly, keep promising high standards. • A feeling of familiarity develops among L-doers: L-prone people recognise other L-prone people as familiar, as ‘friends.’
I nodded emphatically, and sadly, as I read this, since I pride myself in being an "H-doer" but often do not feel appreciated for my efforts by Italians.
As for Italians’ cavalier attitude towards using and abusing English, I feel like this also extends to the way bastardized English words and expressions have entered the Italian lexicon. It is very hip for Italians to use English nouns as adjectives and say things like, "Your sunglasses are so fashion" or "That outfit is very glamour."
My translator posse helped me come up with a list of some other choice examples:
- baby killer = juvenile/underage murderer
- sexy shop = adult store/sex shop
- shop = shopping bag
- beauty = cosmetics bag
- (to do the) footing = to jog
- basket = basketball
- smoking = tuxedo
There’s even the name of my tumblr blog, Made in Italy. Fellow expats and Italians will pick up on a layer of meaning behind the title that people less familiar with Italy might not. Here in the peninsula, Made-in-Italy has become this versatile Renaissance compound word especially dear to marketers. "Mindful Made-in-Italy in the kitchen," for example, is supposed to mean something like "taking a mindful approach to food that is uniquely Italian." And "strictly Made-in-Italy" actually means "authentically Italian," which may sound like splitting hairs, but the point is that it’s being used falsely as an adjective.
A translator friend referred me to an entire book on this very topic, False Anglicisms in Italian by Cristiano Furiassi, where I found some more doozies:
- baby boss = teenage gang leader
- (a) dark = a goth
- flirt = affair
- gas killer = greenhouse gas
- happy end = happy ending
- lifting = face lift
- living = living room
- mister = sports coach
- mobbing = bullying
- naziskin = skinhead
- reality = reality show
- scotch = adhesive tape
- toast = toasted sandwich
- water = toilet bowl
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Furiassi is more charitable vis-à-vis this phenomenon than I am, calling it "a sign of lexical creativity and attraction to the English language" (pg. 215).
"Creative" is certainly one way to describe it. "Cheeky" is another. Many Italians treat English the way they treat women; they might be attracted to it, but I’m not sure they respect it enough.