Thursday, February 17, 2011

My history of Ciao...and then some!

Photo of album cover with title song "Ciao Amore, Ciao" by Delida

While living in Los Angeles, and just before I moved to Italy, I beefed up my vocabulary by slipping in the word ciao—here and there—when greeting friends and family; a simple acknowledgment that wasn’t new to me. I had often heard it used while strolling down the boutique lined avenues near my office in Beverly Hills or while enjoying a California Cobb salad at my favorite Rodeo Drive sidewalk café. I was charmed, and somewhat entertained, to see fashionably dressed men and women greet their friends with this foreign four-letter word and accompany it with a double-cheek kiss. So cosmopolitan I thought, and knowing I would soon be immersed in the Italian way of life I felt it was my right to dive in and make the greeting mine! At the time I wasn’t very concerned about how it was spelled, or where in Italian history it originated. I just liked the way it sounded when it rolled past my lips.
When I moved to Italy it didn’t take me long to learn that this little word was bursting with vowels and wasn’t written the way we Anglophones pronounce it. Phonetically it sure seems to call for a ch and it certainly rings out like the twice repeated name of those fluffy purebred dogs; or Purina’s bestselling moist and meaty; and I mustn't leave out the noodle dish that brings red-lanterns, chopsticks and fortune cookies to mind. So one would naturally think that the friendly greeting would be spelled the same way as these others: c-h-o-w.  But, that’s not how the Italian language works.
It is common knowledge among Venetians that the word ciao derives from an expression in the Venetian dialect—yep they get credit for this too—s’ciàvo or slave; schiavo in Italian. (Note: “ch” in Italian has a “k” sound, and “ci” has a “ch” sound like chocolate) At its inception this tiny word, which is as much a part of Italian culture as pasta, referred to the people of Slavic origin, hence slaves.  The greeting s’ciào corresponded with the slaves' acknowledgment to their owners as your servant or at your service.  I’ve been told by my Venetian friends and family that over the centuries the greeting spread and was used as a form of respect by all classes of society before being shortened to the word as we know it today. It is curious to think that in our contemporary times ciao is considered an informal greeting reserved for close family and friends. No one I've spoken to seems to know when that transformation took effect. However, today when making new acquaintances it is considered proper etiquette to use the greetings buon giorno (good day) and arriverderci (until we see each other again) and never ciao.  
As anyone who has been to Italy can testify ciao is used by Italians dozens of times in any given day: It is echoed across school yards by backpack carrying children heading to their classrooms, waving goodbye to their mothers, and racing to catch up with their classmates screaming out the same; by women in the marketplace, weighed down with bulging bags of fresh produce, who chant the greeting across ice covered fresh-fish stalls to grab the attention of an old friend; by businessmen and women who glancing up from reading the local newspaper spot a colleague enter the local bar where their morning ritual calls for a marmalade-filled brioche washed down with a steaming cup of espresso before they head off to the office; or by carefree groups of friends whose salutations fill the air and bounce off the majestic façade of St. Mark’s square as they call it a night. Yet, if anyone were to ask me what my favorite ciao of the day is, I’d have to tell them that it’s the one that comes with a kiss and the word amore tagging along. Ciao...a sweet welcome or farewell that lets the giver and receiver know they are among friends. Ciao!


  1. Ciao, Questa è la mia prima volta commentando il tuo blog Marie. Sono contento che ho visto il tuo post così posso controllare. Ora so che vi state chiedendo perché sto rispondendo a te in italiano? Ebbene si può credito Google che, dal momento posso solo leggere un po 'di spagnolo oltre a parlare inglese. Ma volevo solo dire Ciao:)

    Cordiali saluti,

    Tim San Valentino

  2. I was amused by my Italian cousins who would say "ciao-ciao" to us when we were bye-bye!

    Very interesting post.

  3. Ciao Ciao that sweet greeting accompanied with a kiss, the Italians are so warm and welcoming. Interesting post, thankyou.

  4. My Venetian friend disapproves of "ciao", because he doesn't want to say, in effect, "I am your slave" to anybody. He likes to use the expression from Friuli - Mandi - may God bring you back to me [though there are other derivations] - as a farewell.
    Do you read Fausto's blog translated by Google? When Fausto signs off a comment he says "ciao", which Google translates as "hello".

  5. Hello to all, and thank you for your comments.

    @ Bert, No I'm not familiar with Fausto's blog, but I would love to see it if you want to send me the link. And I suppose Google only translates "ciao" as "hello" when in fact it is used for both "hello" and "goodbye". I've never heard of "mandi or mandì". But it's nice to learn new greetings.


  6. I'm really enjoying your posts, Marie. I never use "ciao" when I'm in Italy—it always feels too informal.

  7. Thank you Alexa...and if we ever meet up while you're in Italy you can certainly use "ciao" with me!

  8. Thanks. You reminded me of taking our first bus to the vaporetto one autumn morning on the Lido when most tourist were gone. At each stop there was a long sequential repeating of ciao's down the aisle as friends were greeted. A trip of any length begins with a thousand ciao's.

  9. My padrone and other friends in Venice always uses at least six iterations of "ciao" at the end of a phone conversation. I know I am among loved ones :-)

    So, until we meet in person,
    Ciao ciao ciao!