Five Venetian words we use in English

The modern Italian language comes from Tuscany. Although other forms of speech developed alongside it—and so are, strictly speaking, languages and not dialects—Tuscan has had a prestige in the whole of the Italian peninsula from the middle ages onwards, mostly due to the diffusion of the works of Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, and other poets.

In the Renaissance, ironically partly due to the influence of a Venetian nobleman, Pietro Bembo, Tuscan was adopted and developed as the literary language in the whole of the Italian peninsula, with the Accademia della Crusca set up in 1583 to develop and protect it.

Other Italian languages, including Venetian, however continued to thrive due to the fact that there was no unified Italian state until the middle of the nineteenth century. And in fact, many words of Italian origin that entered the English language came directly from Venetian. Here are five of the best:

1. arsenal (first use in English – 1506). This derives from the arsenale, the enormous Venetian shipyard, once the largest industrial complex in Europe. The word in turn comes from the arabic darassina, meaning ‘factory’.

2. ballot (first use in English – 1549) A balota was a small ball used in Venetian political elections.

3. ghetto (first use in English – 1611). From 1516, Jews in Venice were forced to live in the old iron foundry complex, the gheto which still exists as a Jewish quarter today.

4. sequin (first use in English – 1671). A zechin was a gold coin of the Venetian currency, the ducat.

5. zany (first use in English – 1588). Zan or Zuan is the Venetian form of Italian Giovanni, or John. In the Venetian Commedia dell’Arte, there was originally a funny character called Zan and this developed into a group of stock characters known as the ‘Johns’ or ‘Zani’.

3 thoughts on “Five Venetian words we use in English

  1. I knew two out of the five. I’ll definitely have to remember the one on “John”! I’ve been called “zany”, but I’m not a “John”. I must follow after Goldoni since I am a septuagenarian thespian!


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