Dot Wordsworth


From spot to spider, they no longer mean what we think they mean

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Waiting for my husband in a Rome hotel, I was reduced to reading some of the weekend newspaper supplements. The Italians think themselves highly fashionable, and using words from English cements the image. La Repubblica’s weekly magazine called D has two sections with English names: Beauty and Lifestyle. Coverage of Paris Fashion Week was headlined ‘Parigi Fashion Week’ and a discussion of cosmetics was headed ‘No make up’.

This is the sort of thing that drives the Accademia della Crusca into a frenzy. The academy has been making judgments since its foundation in 1583 on the use of the national language. Crusca mean ‘bran’ and the academy likes to sift out indigestible foreign bran from the fine home-ground flour.

Its latest battle has been with the Italian parliament, which incorporated an English phrase home restaurant into a new law regulating food provision. At least home restaurant means a restaurant that someone runs in their own home. Quite a few loan words have been given new meanings in Italian. As in French, smoking means ‘dinner jacket’ and footing means ‘jogging’.

Spot, short for spot pubblicitario, means a television advertisement. Stage means a dose of work experience. A little less easy to understand is tight for ‘morning coat’. My husband’s morning coat is a bit tight nowadays, but most people’s aren’t. I wonder whether it was borrowed in the 19th century from tights when that word in English meant tight-fitting breeches as part of formal dress.

I was puzzled by the use of the word spider to mean ‘convertible car’, but my husband, when he eventually turned up, explained that Fiat made a sports car called the Spider from 1966.

A very specialised piece of borrowing is of tilt, as on a pinball machine, in the phrase andare in tilt, meaning ‘go haywire’, ‘seize up’ or (for computers) ‘crash’. I think that in informal speech Italians mean by fare tilt ‘become incoherent’.

The English might complain with some grounds about such repurposing of their vocabulary, but somehow we have always tolerated free movement of words in the single linguistic market.