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