Being a word person, and having a daily need to understand what’s being said around, or to, me, and also having a need occasionally to communicate some fact or feeling of my own, it’s to be expected that I’d be listening pretty much all the time to the wonders of the Venetian language. Which, as you know by now, is what I mostly hear spoken around the neighborhood (as opposed to Italian), and which is a wizard’s trove of phrases and terms that are utterly Venetian.
I’m not saying that similar expressions might not be heard (with different accents and spelling) elsewhere in Italy — certainly the concepts are universal. But there are so many Venetian ways of putting things which are perfect for the thing described that I sometimes struggle to recall what might correspond to them in English. Or even in the language of the divine Dante, which is something the let’s-rewrite-the-nizioleti squad quickly discovered. Certain things only work in Venetian.
These phrases express myriad nuances of human behavior, in terms which are often intricately bound to what was, at one time, the ordinary stuff of everyday life here.
Here are a few of the more common ones, which I, or somebody, is almost certain to use in the course of a normal day, or couple of days:
Magansese (mah-gan-SEH-zeh): This is my latest discovery and it’s a beaut. It means “two-faced,” “treacherous,” “dangerously, unscrupulously untrustworthy.” There is a lighter expression which you might use more commonly, which is to call someone “una bandiera di ogni vento” — a flag of every wind — a person who goes whichever way the wind, public opinion, fashion, happens to be blowing.
But to call someone magansese is bigger and darker, and it comes from a certain malefactor of the Middle Ages, no less, known in Italian as Gano de Maganza, or Gano from Mainz. In English, he’s known as Ganelon. He betrayed Charlemagne to the Muslims in 778, which is taking etymology, not to mention vituperation, back a breathtaking distance. (The whole story is recounted in the Chanson de Roland, which I know you remember because of all those Chanson de Roland bubblegum cards you collected when you were a kid.)
A traitor, in a word. A fatal, scheming, hideous traitor. One that died more than a thousand years ago. Just think — a person so bad that even when everybody’s forgotten who he was, the stench of his villainy lives on, perpetuated by everyday folks needing the perfect word to vilify their so-called friends.
If there’s more than one — they sometimes travel in packs — the plural is magansesi.
Impegola‘ (im-peg-oh-AH): It’s a verb form taken from pegola, or pitch. To say that you find yourself “pitched” doesn’t mean you’ve been blackened, nor that you’re in danger of having feathers stuck all over you and then be run out of town.
You would say that you’re impegola’ (or impegolada, if a woman) when you realize that you’ve gotten yourself involved in something that’s awkward or unpleasant in some unanticipated way, but that you would find awkward or unpleasant to get out of. Stuck, in a word, just as pitch was mixed with tar to waterproof all those thousands of wooden ships that kept the Serenissima in the game. Stuck in a particularly tenacious way which makes you discontented. “I offered to give her little boy a few English lessons for a week and now I’m impegola’ with his whole class every day for a month.”
You could also say that somebody else has impegola’d you. In any case, you’re stuck and you’ll have to find a way out on your own.
Cascar in covolo (cas-CAR in co-VOH-yo). Fall into a trap. Not a huge, menacing trap, probably, but if you’ve experienced this you’ve been tricked, shnookered, a little bit hoodwinked. You can do it to somebody else, too — make them fall into a covolo.
The “covolo” is a neat tubular construction for accumulating the fish which have let themselves be induced to swim along a stretch of net which you have tied to poles, only to discover that they have obliviously swum into a container you attached to the last pole, from which there is no way out.
If you have fallen into somebody’s covolo, they’ve tricked you in some way. It could be a practical joke, or a neat way of getting you to agree to do something before you realize what’s going on. You in turn could induce somebody to fall into a covolo. It doesn’t have to be serious or life-threatening. But once the falling-into-it has occurred, it can take some doing to get out. If you agree to the phone company’s too-good-to-be-true sales pitch without reading the fine print, you may well discover you’ve fallen into their covolo, along with a batch of other fish.
Far gagiolo (far ga-JYOH-yo). To “do” or “be” or “behave as” gagiolo. This is what someone does who is trying to pull a fast one. (Not to be confused with making you fall into the covolo. Just go with it.)
Somebody of whatever age who attempts some nifty little gag which ought to succeed because of its unexpectedness, or its audacity, or just plain luck, is trying to do a gagiolo. When it works, people may smile. When it fails, people may still smile, but sardonically. When the jig is up on some piece of reckless chutzpah, someone might say “Wow, you really thought you could do a gagiolo.”
A clunky example might be the person who gets his buddy to punch his time card so that he (person A) can quit work early.
Or better yet, the kid who says the dog ate his homework, and even brings his dog to class hoping to convince the teacher that its evident gastrointestinal distress is the result of ingesting five pages of algebra. Doing a gagiolo doesn’t depend on whether it succeeds; it’s enough to have tried. But you don’t get extra points if you succeed, either. The tinge of shiftiness will discolor any triumph you might be inclined to enjoy.
But wait, I hear you cry. What, or who, is a gagiolo? I can answer that. I have discovered that it was the name of the pirate who swooped down (along with his men) in the year 973 and stole the girls from the church of San Pietro di Castello in mid-ceremony. This is a swashbuckling tale with a happy ending for the Venetians, whose rapid pursuit succeeded in retrieving the girls, along with their jewelry, and their virtue (I think). And it was the beginning of the “Festa de le Marie,” which was celebrated on February 2 every year thereafter until 1379.
Seeing that Venice had so brilliantly out-swashbuckled Gagiolo and his henchpirates, it’s only natural that he would have become a byword, one intended to be pronounced with the tiniest bit of a sneer. Venetians are still dissing him 13 centuries later.
Petaizzo (pet-ah-EE-so). Sticky, in a gummy sort of way. If you make meatloaf and mix the meat and egg and other ingredients with your hands, the material has become petaizzo. So have your hands.
What use could this word have? Well, the butcher on the fondamenta has a sign in his window that advertises his musetto, whose quality is evidently superior because they’re said to be “petaissi.” Kind of gluey, due to the pork skin mixed into it, which is claimed to be part of its appeal.
Other things can be described as petaizzo — maybe the viscid pavement after the acqua alta recedes, for example. But its ideal use is to describe a certain sort of person, or behavior. It’s basically when you overdo being nice, or complimentary, or helpful — to the extent that you either make the other person uncomfortable or you embarrass yourself. Writing a thank-you note that is just a little bit too grateful or appreciative could be a small example of being petaizzo; or writing a note that’s just fine, but then following it up with a present. And then following it up with a phone call.
Petaizzo behavior is at its worst when it is seeking, or disseminating, gossip. A person can be petaizzo when she just has to find out that last little bit about why you came back early from vacation, and when she has to share this information with all sorts of other people. It’s not merely that she’s a gossip — a petaizzo is a sticky sort of gossip that you can’t get off your hands, just like the raw meatloaf.
I suppose men could sometimes be petaizzo, but they have a smaller repertoire. I don’t think they care about clothes, children, or boyfriends, but you could find yourself stuck with a man who wants to tell you every intimate detail about his last blood test and his prostate. Some men of a certain age seem to be convinced that this is important information which is desperately sought by their victim. And they become just as petaizzo as a musetto about it.
Impesta’ (im-peh-STA). In Italian, the plague is la peste. As you know, it was a catastrophically fatal and contagious disease that devastated much of Europe in various periods, and Venice was no exception. To call someone “impesta'” is an ugly thing indeed; it not only means that in your opinion the person is already afflicted (ghastly) with the plague but is probably spreading it (even worse). You wouldn’t say it to someone’s face but you might be driven to say it about them. “This impesta’ never answers my phone call when he sees its my number, he’s been avoiding me for a week because he owes me money.” You should be really angry or exasperated to say it, and it’s never used in a humorous or affectionate backhanded way, like some other denigratory words.
You might also hear someone say that someone is “Brutto/a come la peste” — as ugly as the plague. No laughing matter, around here. I recommend that you avoid trying these words out, they could really backfire.
Sbatola (z-BAH-toe-a). I truly love this one. I can’t decline it for you, but “sbattere” is a verb which means “beat” or “bang”, the go-to word for the racket made by unsecured shutters in the wind, or a desperate person at your front door at midnight as the posse is closing in. Now imagine that sound being created by somebody’s jaws as they talk, and talk, and talk. To say that somebody’s “ga ‘na sbatola” means that when that person starts — and he or she is always in “start” mode — he or she will not stop, probably not even when you just walk away.
This is not ranting, this isn’t free-associating, this is sheer abundance of one-sided conversation which must, at all costs, be expended on friends, acquaintances, friends of acquaintances, acquaintances of friends. All it takes is to ask this indefatigable person how he is or how things are going or what he’s having for lunch or where he went to school, and you discover that you might as well have asked “What’s the plot of “War and Peace”?