Thursday, February 16, 2017
Swearing, Italian Style
Swearing, Italian Style, Beppe Severgnini FEB. 15, 2017, New York Times
image (not from article) from
[JB personal note/confession: I spent a wonderful part of my adolescent years
-- as a U.S. Foreign Service brat -- in Rome: 1958-1962, and I still get a kick
out of città eterna memories when I hear vaffanculo -- see below highlight.]
ROME — The Italian language is so beautiful. All those vowels, those lovely
flowing sounds, the mellifluous phrases honed by centuries of happy use.
All that has changed.
Italians are using more and more “parolacce” (swear words). In private
conversations, within the family, in public life, on mainstream media and — of
course — on social media. We used to be surprised by the number of “F-words” in
American movies; now our own equivalent, “C-words” — many of which refer to
various parts of the human anatomy — are everywhere. Calling someone a “stronzo,”
Italian for “turd,” is quite popular.
The respected singer Luciano Ligabue — Italy’s Bruce Springsteen — picked this
title for his latest single: “E’ venerdì, non mi rompete i coglioni” (“It’s Friday, Don’t
Break My Balls”). Swearing is the norm on national television, too; the art critic
Vittorio Sgarbi, one of the pioneers, has hordes of imitators. On Radio24, the radio
station owned by Confidustria (the Confederation of Italian Industry), the program
“La Zanzara” (“The Mosquito”) encourages listeners to insult one another and,
what’s more, to enjoy it. A few days ago, a woman told them to hurry up with the
traffic news because, she had a hot date to perform oral sex — and the clip is now
This is all a bit of a shock. Italian is known all over the world as the language of
art, design, opera and good food. It brings nice thoughts to one’s mind and nice
sounds to the ear. Even French, while also soft and elegant, is — we feel — a bit
self-conscious, even a bit (O.K., very) haughty.
Italian, in contrast, is a generous, gentle language that everybody loves, even if
they don’t understand it. Some even say that the immense popularity of Joe
DiMaggio, one of the best-known baseball players of all time, was inflated by the
pleasure broadcasters took in pronouncing his surname on the radio. The worldwide
success of cappuccino is surely not just due to the ubiquity of Starbucks; people
everywhere just love the smooth, foamy sound of that word.
And remember Anita Ekberg calling to Marcello Mastroianni from the waters of
the Trevi Fountain: “Marcello!” If Mastroianni’s first name had been Engelhard, “La
Dolce Vita” would not be one of the coolest movies of all time. If it were made now,
she’d be more likely to call him, however seductively, with a word that remains
unprintable in newspapers like this one.
How has this happened? There are three reasons.
Educational standards have changed; families have stopped being schools for
good manners. For my generation — born in the 1950s and ’60s — swearing at one’s
parents was unthinkable. Saying “Stupida!” to your mom was a crime serious enough
to be sent to your room for the whole day (without a computer, of course, back then).
Today even Italian toddlers swear at their parents. Where do they learn such
bad habits? Well, at home. Their parents use the same language with them, and
appear nonplused when the family encounters it in public.
The second reason? Public discourse has become angrier, as it has elsewhere in
Europe and in the United States. To introduce what may be now Italy’s largest
political party, the Five Star Movement, its founder, Beppe Grillo — a comedian —
announced something called “V-Day,” the “V” standing for a crude Italian word for
“buzz off.” Not surprisingly, his voters don’t debate the issues like Minnesotans.
The most convincing explanation, though, is this: We simply don’t speak our
own language as well as we used to. In the last 30 years or so, Italian, like most other
languages, has been swamped by English words. But we put up less of a fight than
the Spanish or the French. In Rome, we operate our desktop computer with a mouse,
as they do in New York or London. In Madrid they use “el raton” with their
“ordenador”; in Paris it’s “souris” and “ordinateur.”
Succumbing to the English invasion may make communication easier, but
insulting someone effectively is an art in itself, requiring training, eloquence and
imagination. Those common, ugly words sound like a declaration of impotence: “I’m
too lazy to offend you properly, so I’ll call you a ‘stronzo’ ” — and we’ll both be the
poorer for it.
Beppe Severgnini is a columnist for Corriere della Sera, the author of “La Bella Figura: A
Field Guide to the Italian Mind” and a contributing opinion writer.
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A version of this oped appears in print on February 16, 2017, in The International New York Times.