Over 300 common English words can be traced back to Italian, and it will come as little surprise to hear that a large number of these relate either to music or to food. Most of the technical vocabulary of music is borrowed from Italian and so English speakers are accustomed to hearing Italian terms such as concerto, crescendo, presto, and soprano. Our love affair with Italian cuisine has also made words such as pasta, pizza, espresso, and salami part of our everyday language.
But Italian words also crop up in other areas of life: people at weddings throw confetti (which originally meant ‘sweets’, but came to be applied to bits of paper thrown in place of sweets to wish a bridal couple well); politicians publish a manifesto (literally a ‘poster’) to declare what they will do if elected; fashionable shoes may have a stiletto heel (named after the Italian word for a ‘little dagger’ on account of the shape).
Less obviously, our word ballot comes from the Italian word ‘ballotta’ meaning ‘little ball’ (from the days when people would put a small ball into a bag or box to cast a secret vote); alarm comes from the Old Italian call of ‘all’arme!’ meaning ‘to arms!’, which would be shouted when danger threatened; and quarantine comes from the Italian word ‘quaranta’ meaning ‘forty’ (because a ship’s crew used to be kept in isolation for forty days after the outbreak of an infectious disease on board).
One of the more surprising words to come from Italian is rocket. In Italian, ‘rocca’ was originally the word for the part of a weaver’s loom that held the wool, and the diminutive form of this, ‘rocchetta’, came to be used for a self-propelling cylinder in various mechanical devices. In French, this became ‘roquette’, and the word finally entered English as ‘rocket’ in the 17th century.
By Ian Brookes