Friends, Romans, babysitters

March 31, 1995

Modern day Italian parents may well discuss the cost of babysitteraggio, and young Italians know that when they buy a T-shirt they should ask for una medium (pronounced maydium) or una large, T-shirts being feminine and therefore requiring the article una rather than un. The grandmother, if she can afford it, may well decide to be liftata, to distend the natural wrinkles of old age.

These and thousands of other neologisms, many of English language provenance, are included in the largest and most comprehensive Italian dictionary ever published; five volumes for a total of 1,318 pages and a cost in Italy of about Pounds 500. The publisher is Treccani, a venerable institution responsible for the most hallowed of Italian encyclopedias.

According to Treccani's directors, Il Vocabolario Della Lingua Italiana marks a historic turning point for the Italian language. It is official recognition of the fact that Italian is in evolution, and indeed must evolve in order to continue to be an important language. They point out that the gap between "proper Italian'' and spoken Italian has widened, with the official language gradually losing touch with evolving linguistic reality.

According to the new dictionary's publishers, Italian is about to have a new lease of life as a functional international language, and they give two reasons.

The first is that all over the central Mediterranean, millions of people are constantly exposed to a barrage of output from Italian TV channels. Treccani showed a film shot in a marketplace in Tunisia in which Tunisians, stopped at random, spoke Italian with amazing fluency and grammatical correctness (by Italian TV standards).

The second is that tens of millions of second and third generation Italian emigrants, in North and South America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, are rediscovering their ethnic roots and feverishly studying Italian language and culture. The first generation's sense of shame, associated with poverty in the old country and the desire to become assimilated in the new, has given way to a renewed pride in their ancestral home. Hence, claims Treccani, Italian must evolve and adapt, and many neologisms must be officially absorbed for the language to continue to do so.

The new words which are consecrated as officially "Italian'' by Treccani include many of foreign origin, with English prevalent. But also included are many expressions till now considered regional colloquialisms, and therefore excluded from dictionaries of the past. One Roman example is malloppo, originally meaning stolen goods but now used in broader senses; another is budellone, derived from budella, entrails, which rather crudely describes a voracious eater.

Thanks to the computer revolution, the new Treccani includes verbs like editare, resettare, faxare. And thanks to a recent history of political corruption, we have the term tangente, meaning a payoff or kickback on a public contract, as well as the verb tangentizzare and the noun tangentista.

The Treccani dictionary includes about 200,000 terms and is undoubtedly the largest and most comprehensive Italian dictionary ever produced. First conceived almost 30 years ago, it may for future linguists become a benchmark for modern Italian usage. It should also subtly but significantly change the concept of "good Italian'' as taught in schools and universities. No longer will an indignant teacher be able to say "You can't write 'll babysitteraggio costa un malloppo perche' (because) la babysitter e' una budellona.'" (The babysitter costs a packet because she eats too much.)

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