Ciao: “I am your slave”

Every day, in the world, billions of people meet or collide. Whether they know each other or they have never met, the first thing they instinctively do is greet each other.

Greeting someone is probably the second most common and independent action we carry out in our every-day routine, after breathing. It is an act of courtesy and respect, and we are taught to do it since infancy so that we don’t appear rude.

It does not matter if we greet with gestures or words, as long as greeting someone is a universally permanent feature. Recently, with the internationalization of various languages, greetings have changed and are being shaped to adapt to the evolution of different cultures.

That’s why the English “hey” is being used more and more around the world, similar to the Swedish “hej”, the Italian “ehi” or the portuguese “oi”; “hello” has become “hallo” in German speaking countries and “alô” in Portuguese ones and “hi” is commonly used in Scandinavian countries.

But I personally believe that the most internationalized greeting in history is indubitably the “ciao” – for which Italy is so well-known. It is applied today around the world as frequently and as popularly as it is used in Italy – even by countries like Latvia (chau), Serbia (ćao) and Vietnam (xin chào).

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“Ciao” is an informal greeting, used between friends, people with the same social status and family. Internationally, it is mostly used in its original Italian version – usually only when speaking – and its peculiarity is that it can be applied either to say hello or to say goodbye, something that French and German people particularly enjoy.

But I bet you no one, not even Italians, has ever wondered where the word originates from.

Well, you would be surprised to know that the derivation of the term “ciao” is much more interesting that you could imagine.

You may think that it derives from Latin, as most Italian words do, and partly you would be right. But the prime derivation of “ciao” is the word “sciavo”, which is a Venetian dialect, coming from the Latin word “sclavus”, meaning “slave”.

Venetians between the X and the XI century used to call the Slavic ethnicity by the term “sciavo”. Slavic people, in fact, were largely employed as slaves in the Mediterranean area, sold like objects by their families to Venetian and Arabian merchants who usually came from Spain, Egypt and Anatolia. The Slavic ethnicity developed, in that period, the reputation of being a subservient people and the word “sciavo” was amply used in the next époques. Hence, it’s no wonder that we find the same root even in modern languages: “slave” in English, “esclave” in French, “esclavo” in Spanish and “Sklave” in German. In the same period the term “sciavo” acquired the connotation of a true greeting, meaning “I am your slave” or “I am at your service/disposal”. It was largely used as a sign of reverence with popular or very important people, insomuch as appearing in Goldoni’s comedies, in the ‘700s.

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It’s very fascinating and important to see the evolution of the term “sciavo”, into “sciao” and the “ciao” that we all know and use nowadays.

Be careful who you greet people, unless you want to be “slaved” to the wrong people!

[Italiano]

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