It is a sunny Sunday. I sit in the Piazza Duomo, the main square in Como, Italy, sipping a cappuccino and idly watching the world go by. A middle-aged man leans over from the next table. "Do you speak English?" he asks in Italian. When I respond "I get by," he points at the Italian magazine article he's reading and asks, in a somewhat alarmed tone, "Do you know what these English words mean?"
I read the phrase "Italians do it better" and translate as best I can. I notice other English terms like missing, video games, fitness, premier, and ranch on the same page. I wonder if he'll ask about these, too. Just then a youth wearing a sweatshirt bearing the slogan "Hey! Wait for me" walks past, his imposing radio blaring "Hit Parade on Radio DJ, one nation, one station." The orange bus he hops on carries a commercial for underwear on its side, with the slogan "Be cool."
Such incursions of Anglo-American terminology into Italian have become so common that it is almost impossible to avoid them, in any walk of life. The mass media are spearheading a linguistic revolution that Italians seem to welcome (unlike their linguistic cousins, the French, who have officially declared war against English via the Academie Francaise). The Italian government, on the other hand, seems unconcerned with this ongoing phenomenon. Indeed, it might be lost for words if it couldn't use the English importations.
Anglo-American terms are commonly employed to convey the political events of the day. During a "briefing" with his "staff," Italy's "premier" may show concern for the deepening "deficit" and with a "politically correct" tone guarantee that he'll respond to queries during "question time." Discussions may move on to new "impeachment" procedures, "spoils system" applications, and appointing an "authority" to overhaul the country's antiquated "antitrust" legislation. The good "news" is that next year's "budget" foresees a "no-tax area" to relieve low-paid workers from paying income tax. The "welfare" minister will certainly approve.
The "business" community needs English more than ever. The "management" holds "brainstorming" sessions at each "meeting" and considers up-to- date practices such as "outsourcing," implementing a "call center," and engaging in direct "marketing" while respecting "privacy" regulations. A "task force" may be proposed to "lobby" the government to streamline "franchising" operations for new "fast-food" restaurants or opening "factory store" or "outlet" (borrowed words are rarely used in the plural). Somebody may point out that attaching "gadget" to products did not cause the expected "boom in shopping." Somebody else may move the subject to increasing "mobbing" at the workplace and suggest creating a "network" of solidarity.
Reactions to Italish
It would be wrong to presume that there is unanimous approval of this newspeak in Italy. In the newspapers and magazines, it is not uncommon to find letters complaining of excessive interference by English. Recently, one reader of the daily Corriere della Sera expressed her concerns: "At this pace English will become the official language in Italy and Italian will only be spoken as an idiom by an elite of intellectuals."
In the newspaper Repubblica, Professor Arrigo Castellani, a member of the Crusca Academy of Florence, which was set up in 1582 to standardize Italian, suggested equivalents to replace, for instance, "big bang" with granbotto, "spray" with spruzzo, "flash" with lampo, and "best- seller" with vendutissimo. Six years on, takers have been hard to come by, for the simple reason that the non-English versions would sound terribly old-fashioned to the modish Italians.
In June 2000, a number of intellectuals, members of Parliament, and ordinary citizens presented the education minister with a petition urging him to do something to curb this serious contamination of Italian. The minister raised the issue in "question time. …