Tag Archives: language

On Being Italian

OK. Not all Italians are easily excitable, dramatic, exaggerate and gesture enthusiastically but it is not uncommon and I’m afraid to say I got the gene! I do not speak for all Italians. I speak for me and those I know.  I can also tell you honestly that the times I’ve visited Italy it was heartening  and satisfying to see all the characteristics mentioned above, playing out in lively scenes that are deemed “too much” or too dramatic here.

Outsiders can mistakenly think Italians are upset, angry or yelling but we are just showing interest in a somewhat loud way. Every man who joined our family asked the same question, “what’s wrong?” What do you mean one of us would say quizzically. “Why are you all talking and yelling at the same time?”  Yelling!?! We aren’t yelling, we would say, looking at time as if they were crazy.  My interpretation is that we care about whatever it is that has caught our attention.  I would think people would appreciate this fact! I am always suspicious of people who don’t show any emotion…what are they hiding?  What are they not saying? Eh, must be the Sicilian in me.  I just don’t understand this I’m-too-cool-to-release-an-emotion, thing.  We all have them people, let them out!

Drama. One person’s drama is another persons way of life.  When an Italian says things like: You’re killing me here, Madonna Mia! (as in virgin mother not the stroppy singer), Va fancula (don’t use this one), A Fa Napoli (go to hell or get the hell outta here), I can’t take it!  (In Brooklyn “I caaaan’t”)….It’s language meant to express the feeling they are having. They don’t necessarily mean what they say. It is the same reason I exaggerate.  If I say it’s 100 degrees in here. I don’t really think it’s 100 degrees but that’s what it feels like.  When there were two dogs in the house I would say things like , oh God, I can’t walk with 27 dogs in my way!  Again, capturing the feeeling, nothing more nothing less.  I crack up when someone tries to explain the realities to me. “Dana it’s only 72 degrees in here.”  You’re killing me!

A typical conversation between my husband and myself:

Me: “When are you going to mow the lawn?”

Him: “Later”

Me: “But it’s 7:00pm now”

Him: “I know”

Me: “So you’re going to mow the lawn at 12 o’clock at night?

Again, simply underscoring the late hour. The come back is always an explanation of the actual time and how he didn’t say he would mow the lawn at 12 o’ clock. Sighhhh…message lost.

When I’m upset or excited about something, it will be expressed in hand gestures or my speech or both. One way or another it is coming out! It doesn’t matter what the reality is. So one will hear: I’ve had 100 calls today at work (20), I had to pay like $1,000 to get the car fixed ($350), There were 57 people ahead of me in the supermarket line….you get the picture.  And, when I hear something upsetting for myself or someone else, I’ll gasp or say WHAT?!!!  I think being Italian and apatheic is impossible!  Contrast this with my husband, a Brit, who would respond to the same information with “riiight” as he calmly took in the information.
I could write a post on the phrase Oh My God alone. It is used liberally and in many different situations. It is not reserved for a calamity.   There is “Oh my God!” meaning, I don’t believe it, I’m shocked or got bad news. Then there is oh-my-God which means, he or she is an idiot or something is ridiculous.  Let’s not forget  OhmyGod! which means I forgot something or someone or something is in danger and action needs to be taken. And lastly, Oh my Gaaaawd which is said as a cry (not a whine) which means I’m being stressed to the max . Usually because someone is doing my head in and/or annoying me. When this is used the receiver of the phrase will have a short amount of time to correct their offending behavior because the sender is about to blow up!  Each version is said with its own inflection and different words are stressed.  Of course Italians don’t own these three words and other nationalities have their own versions.

When I lived in England, exclamations were frowned upon. Though Brits do know how to curse and do so very well I might add, Brits do not appear to be comfortable with general outbursts as a rule, rather it seems to be a source of pride that one can keep it together in any situation. Keep Calm Carry On was a war slogan meant to remind people that they were not to freak out once bombs started dropping remember!  I once called (called mind you. I didn’t shout or scream) to my husband who was further down the supermarket aisle than I was and everyone turned around. His face went pale and I thought he was going to pass out. He looked at me as if I’d jumped into the refrigerated section and was throwing thing around like an ape.  I’m not uncouth and am appreciative of manners and etiquette.  I was innocently holding  a package of fresh mozzarella but when I saw that it had come from Italy, I had to share it and thought he’d be as happy as I was.

Ever see someone you hadn’t seen in a long time? Do you quietly approach them or call to them in whispering tones? Or do you act Italian and squeal “oh my God! I can’t believe it! Hiiiii!  How are youuuu??? Complete with delight and lots of hugs and kisses? Again, demonstrating care and interest!

I don’t know if it’s an Italian thing or a New York thing but when I get angry, I curse.  I don’t know many New Yorkers who have a problem with this. Cursing is not seen as coarse or crude, rather it is a creative way of expressing one’s self.  Cursing and degree of anger are positively correlated.  Spouses take heed!  Again, it was nice to hear people exclaiming, cursing, and generally expressing themselves in Italy without it being seen as a character flaw!

Italians talk. They talk with their mouths, their hands, their facial muscles, their shoulders, their whole bodies really.  You will always know what we think, how we feel and where you stand.  If we love you, you will be showered with affection and if we are angry you will know it, the offending situation will be addressed and it will be done with.  We are an expressive people and don’t usually hold things in.  What’s the point of having emotions and feelings if you can’t express them?  Viva Italiano!

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A Word About Words

I’m not a linguist but I  sometimes wish I was.  I often feel like the word police and really must restrain myself from correcting people, lest I be ostracized and ignored by those around me. I hear a siren in my head when I hear certain words used and abused. I’m not saying I know all the rules of grammar however some faux pas just really irritate me.  I am fascinated by etymology and where clichés and phrases come from as well and try to broaden my vocabulary if I can.

There is so much confusion about the English language. It would have been much easier if it remained the English language during and after its voyage to the new world.  I can only assume that the introduction of other languages and vernacular caused the problems we have today. Sometimes it’s a matter of education but how does that explain George Bush, who despite being surrounded by other very educated people and having had a stellar education himself, continues to say nucular instead of nuclear-which drives me crazy every time I hear it. His use of language is beyond the scope of this post.

English Language

English Language (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Were we to travel to the birthplace of the English language, yes, England, we would not be at home as one would expect as our languages are very different indeed. I lived in England for a time and found that when I needed to speak more English-English,  I  used my mouth and tongue more. We Americans have lazy mouths! Who knew? It actually takes work to pronounce words correctly. Here is an example of the words that caused me confusion and embarrassment at times:

Garter belt is suspenders, suspenders are called braces, pants are trousers and underwear is pants.  A vest is a waistcoat, an undershirt is a vest!  Vagina is fanny and a fanny is your butt. Your butt is a bum there (I’m not being crude, this needs to be known because when you go around England with your “fanny pack” you will know why Brits break out in laughter-you’re welcome!).  See what I mean?  Very confusing.  I have actually logged hundreds of words that differed from the ones that I used as I needed to understand it to be able to function in society. There were several times I was very embarrassed (see my blog Have I Got News For You). I used the word toss at work and everyone started laughing. I was finally told it means that someone is pleasuring themselves.  If I went into a store to buy something and said to the cashier, “I have a tweny”, the response would be “Sorry? I didn’t understand.”  That’s because we Americans do not use our Ts. Why don’t we say twenTy?  No idea.  I also told someone I was self-sufficient which brought tears and laughter to my husband who told me later that I had announced that I grow my own vegetables and live off the land!

Then there are abused words that time and oceans can not be blamed for. Take the humble coupon (Koo-pon).  People seem able to say coupe as in a car with 2 doors, so why the confusion?  One need only drop an e and add the o n.  They don’t say cyoup do they?  Where on earth did Qupon/Queuepon/Q-pon come from?  It sounds like half Q-Tip and half tampon to me.   Other words begin similarly such as couple and couplet so one would reason that the mispronunciation would take the form of cup-on but this is not the case.

My personal favorite is the misuse of the word caramel.  As there is an a in the middle of the word, I would think this would be quite easy to pronounce. Did people eat so many car-a-mels that that they felt one more syllable was just too much to take? “My mouth is just too tired, can I have a car-mel please?”

Any word that has a silent letter in it and is pronounced drives me crazy as well. Almonds are Ahmonds and calm, for goodness sake, is cahm. What about height? Why do people say heighth?  It’s as if they got a running start with length and width and just kept on going!

Roof? Seems the simplest of words right?  No. Ruff. Ruff? There are two Os people!!

The question that causes my skin to crawl is “Where are you at?” This one has become an epidemic! If  “where are you?” asks the question, why would one add at which is a preposition? And, although rules have softened on the preposition at the end of sentence, this is just plain wrong.  I have no words for “where you at,” no words.

I’ve gotten into trouble for being too “flowery” by using actual words such as innocuous and telephonic as some people  didn’t think a) they were real words and b) that if they were I should actually use them.  One of the biggest annoyances when it comes to language and communicating is when someone doesn’t know a word and won’t just ask what it means so we can move on with the conversation. I’ve had the bizarre experience though of people questioning me and even having the gall to make fun of me when I use a large word (there you go again using your $5 words!). It’s really all I can do to keep from laughing and it makes me feel like I’m in the twilight zone. Mind you I don’t even think I have a large vocabulary. I often feel like Marilyn in the Munsters tv show if anyone remembers that. Try to gain knowledge and use it and others see you as a freak!

Funnier still is when people email or text asking me what a certain word meant. If you can email you can look it up online people. Parting advice for anyone too lazy to crack open a dictionary, take 3 seconds to type it into Google. Geesh!

Which words drive you crazy? I know we all have them.

Disclaimer: Consult your Linguist if you experience headaches, annoyances, exasperation or total outrage from others incorrect use of language.  Side effects of actually looking words up to understand their correct definitions in order to use them correctly includes but is not limited to the following: personal growth, better grammar, better vocabulary and a general sense of confidence and wellbeing.

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Have I Got News For You!

How does an Italian American, living and working in NYC, minding her own business I might add, end up on the news in England….TWICE!! Moreover, how does she not manage to see either broadcast?

Well, here are my stories….

Christmas pudding decorated with skimmia rathe...

Image via Wikipedia

I visited England for the first time in the 90s and enjoyed traveling round, eating country pub food and taking in all the country had to offer. My boyfriend was British and as it was just before Christmas, he was kind enough to purchase English food for me to take home to New York.  One of the items that would haunt me later lay wait in my luggage, a Christmas Pudding. When we arrived at Manchester Airport, my luggage was x-rayed and I moved on to the check-in counter.  I was then met by a very imposing security agent who pulled me to the side and proceeded to grill me for the next 30 minutes!  Now I had travelled somewhat by this time so was familiar with the usual questions: did anyone give you anything to carry, did you pack your own bags?? But no, now I was being asked who I was with and I had to point out my boyfriend from whom I’d been separated from during this ordeal. I was not allowed to speak to him or look to him for answers. The agent continued. Why did you come to England? Where did you both go? What did you do while you were here, what kind of work do you do?  I began to sweat and wondered if I had done something wrong.  Did he know that I took the Suchard’s hot cocoa that had been left in my hotel room?  After what seemed like forever, he let me go and I sat down in the lounge with my boyfriend where we said our tearful goodbyes.  I tore myself away and moved through security and on to the gate. Lo and Behold! The same testy security agent was there standing next to the jetway waiting for none other than little ole me!  I thought, do they just take their security so seriously that they escort people to the plane or could it be that he was trying to make amends for being so hostile earlier?  He wished me a good flight and I boarded the plane, settling down for a 7 hour flight.I arrived at JFK, collected my luggage and returned home.  My family was excited to hear about my travels and in relaying my experiences, I walked over to my luggage to extract the souvenirs I had purchased for them.  I was horrified and frankly, pissed off to find that my bags had been slashed with razors. Those bastards!  I assumed someone at one of the airports had stolen from me.  But no, as I continued to look through my belongings I realized nothing had been taken and all my souvenirs and the food I was given was in tact and there in front of me.  That’s strange I thought.  And a while later forgot all about it.

My boyfriend called to make sure I arrived safely and informed me that he knew why I had been questioned at the airport so intensly.  He said that it had been on the news that same day that the Manchester Airport had installed new x-ray machines that could not differentiate between semtex, an explosive used by terrorists and favored by the IRA at the time and my Christmas Pudding! The agent wasn’t greeting me he was waiting to see if I got on the plane…..I’m still waiting for my apology!!

Fast forward 10 months later and I was living in England and had just been married.  My new husband, myself and my family had been staying in a manse (home of a vicar or minister) as my father in law was just that and had married us a few days before.  As we were honeymooning in Scotland we left eastern England at 4am to be able to get to Western Scotland, Glasgow, to drop my family off at the airport. I had thrown on comfortable clothes for the long trip up into the highlands and had not even put on make-up.  We were headed to the Isle of Skye for our honeymoon and took the foodstuffs we had acquired at the manse with us.

Loch lomond 2003 09 06

Beautiful Loch Lommond-Image via Wikipedia

The roads and vistas in the highlands were breathtaking.  We had traveled past Gretna Green where lovers go to elope, stopped off at Loch Lommond where the fog hovered above the water on a beautifully sunny day and were on the outskirts of Fort William when we had to stop for petrol (gas).  There was a film crew there which did not faze me in the least as one always sees tv shows or films of one kind or another being made in New York.  My husband got out to pay for the gas and the film crew rushed him.  They said they were asking people what brought them to the Highlands of Scotland as they were doing a piece on this.  My husband, a man of very few words, pointed to the “Just Married” sign on the car and proceeded to walk into the shop.  The crew then turned their attention on me.  I happily showed them my wedding ring and one cheeky git who I would later learn was a famous football star there known as Allie McCoist, said “oh aye, I see you have jams in the back seat, what are you plannin on doin with those then.” A sound man then thrust his fuzzy microphone in my face as I answered in earnest, “My husband likes his crumpets, they are for him.”  Well! that was it, 4 grown men were in hysterics and falling all over themselves.  My heart dropped as I knew I’d said something wrong but had no idea what it was yet.  There was another man there who I would also later learn was a famous comedian called Fred MacAulay who jumped on that and continued to ask embarrassing questions until my husband returned and they scattered like sheep.

A buttered crumpet

Crumpet of Shame-Image-Wikipedia

My husband saw their reaction and saw my face and said “Oh no, what did you say?” I told him that I’d shown them my wedding ring and talked about the honeymoon and our plans and that one of them had asked about the jams in the box in the back seat and I told him that you like your crumpets. “Oh no, oh no” he moaned, looking down shaking his head. What! What did I say? I implored. He looked at me with a pained face and said “crumpet means ‘a piece of ass’ here.” To say I died of embarrassment would be an understatement and……. premature.  We got back on the road and stayed a night in Fort William, a lovely place if not for the F16s that love to break the sound barrier there while people are trying to sleep! As we moved deeper in the highlands we lost radio signal and when we arrived at our cottage we had no tv reception save local channels that were in gaelic! We also had no phone. When we happened upon a call box (phone booth) my husband called his parents to let them know we’d arrived safely. His 77 year old father, the vicar I mentioned before, proceeded to tell him that he had had a number of calls from various family members who had seen his son’s new American wife on the telly (tv) on the McCoist and MacAulay Show which is seen by millions of people as it is broadcast after Match of the Day, a show that highlights all the football (soccer) matches that took place that day!The faces of all the sweet people who had come to the wedding flashed before my eyes. As did the details of that day: no make up, boring clothes, crumpets and jams…..I felt my stomach flip and wanted to crawl beneath a mound of heather and never come out! The show aired on BBC and to this day and after repeated requests and out and out begging, I still have not seen the episode in which I featured! What I do know is that the comedy duo had a segment that basically made fun of people on the street. Partial ignorance, semi bliss yes…but continously cringeworthy? Oh Aye!

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