Sunday, May 07, 2006

Italian gay language [VI]

Italian is a romance language, with close affinities with Spanish, Portuguese, and (to a lesser degree) with French. Like these languages, it arose on the ruins of the Roman Empire, prolonging and revamping its language, Latin.

Until recently Italy was characterized by sublinguistic pluralism, embodied in a profusion of dialects. In addition to Tuscan, the basis of standard Italian, there are a score of other dialects. Some of them, such as Sicilian and Friulan, have given birth to a substantial deposit of literature.

Unlike, say English or French, Italian has only an attenuated form of slang (gergo). In terms of our subject, which examines (inter alia) the invention of sexual terms at the popular level, this might seem a limitation. However, the lack finds compensation in terms stemming from the dialects, so that arrusu is Sicilian, while finocchio is apparently Tuscan.

For the Italian peninsula the historical record of same-sex behavior is very rich. Prior to the year 1800 it is probably as forthcoming as that of all the nations in Europe combined. Curiously, perhaps, this plethora of evidence regarding conduct is not matched by a comparable profusion of items in the homolexicon. The reason for this is probably the unity of Italian civilization. Unlike Britain, France, and Spain, Italy never acquired a significant colonial empire, a main source of variety in the other languages concerned. As noted, the relative poverty of slang has played a part. Perhaps too, there has been an inherent sense of conservatism and propriety in the peninsula, governed in part by the constant presence of Latin. Even if an Italian speaker does not know Latin—and today most don’t—the continuous awareness of its presence has bequeathed an unconscious sense of adherence to norms. This has served as a brake on linguistic evolution. Only in the years since World War II, when an Anglo-American language invasion occurred, has the dam broken, so to speak.

We turn now to the evidence in chronological sequence. Urbanization survived the wreck of the Roman Empire in Italy better than elsewhere in Western Europe. Hypothetically, same-sex customs survived there as well, together with some of the Latin sexual vocabulary.

Little is known of popular sexuality in Dark Age Italy. Literacy became the monopoly of the church, especially in the monasteries. A ninth-century Latin poem from Verona is a touching document of boy love.

As the mists begin to clear it is evident that homosexuality was chiefly understood through the lenses of Christian disparagement. The most common term was of course sodomia, a creation of medieval Latin reflecting the putative customs of the Sodomites in the book of Genesis. Related are Gomorrita and figlio della pentapoli (son of the [five] Cities of the Plain. Like sodomia and sodomita these go back to the book of Genesis in Hebrew Bible. In what seems to be a unique instance, the name of the city of Sodom was applied as a sobriquet to an artist, the Sienese Renaissance painter known as il Sodoma (Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, 1477-1549).

The New Testament supplied contra natura (Romans 1:26-27). The idea that the vice of same-sex love was literally unmentionable also goes back to Scripture; hence the term nefandita. That the ecclesiastics who railed against the vice might not be exempt themselves is suggested by gioco dei frati, friars’game. The continuing hold of Roman Catholicism in Italy transpires from relatively recent expressions such as dall’altra parocchia and cambiare parocchia ("from the other parish" and to "change one's parish," in effect, to come out).

As in other parts of Europe sodomy was commonly ascribed to dualist heretics ostensibly coming from Bulgarian, the original buggers. The most common Italian term of this family is buggerone, with soft 'g.'

For some centuries, ending in the eighteenth, the term bardassa (or bardascia) was current for a young effeminate who allows himself to be penetrated. It stems from an Arabic term for "young slave," itself taken from the Persian. The term reflects the concept that the passive homosexual is without power-—a slave. In older texts it was contrasted with buggerone.

Major Italian writers, such as Dante and Petrarch, were also good Latinists. During the fifteenth century a view sprang up that one should write only in Latin, leaving the vernacular for the common people. Although the use of the Italian as a literary language revived, indeed triumphantly so, this period of uncertainty created a window between Latin and the (Tuscan) vernacular. This communicating membrane, so to speak, permitted the recovery of a number of Latin sexual terms, including catamita, pederasta, and irrumare (a form of fellatio in which the penetrator engages in active thrusts). Cinaedus, a Latin term for a lewd performer or prostitute, became in Italian cinedo, simply a catamite, the younger partner in a pederastic relationship.

Of classical origin are the terms for female homosexuality, saffica (Sapphist) and lesbica (the latter not common until the twentieth century).

The period of preference for Latin yielded such works as the Hermaphroditus (1425), a collection erotic epigrams, heterosexual and homosexual, by il Panormita (Antonio Beccadelli), a Sicilian. Such works provided a channel whereby the sophisticated Latin terminology of antiquity could be reintroduced into Italy. After Panormita came Aretino, Della Casa, and others writing frankly about sexual matters in the vernacular.

Eventually the dead hand of Counterreformation stifled this flowering. Various treatises on the evils of sodomy, whether in Latin or Italian, enjoyed circulation among the learned. A particular branch of this endeavor was forensic medicine, founded by Paolo Zacchia, a physician at the papal court. His Questiones medico-legales (1621-50) deals with the purported physical evidence for submission to anal sodomy.

During the second half of the eighteenth century Enlightenment ideas stemming from France made their way into Italy, especially in Lombardy and the north.. These ideas enlisted several vigorous supporters, notably count Cesare Beccaria. His pioneering treatise on reform of the criminal laws, Dei delitti e delle pene (On crimes and punishments, 1764) was widely read throughout Europe. In this book he advocates abolition of the laws prohibiting homosexual conduct (which he somewhat coyly terms l’attica Venere, Athenian love) as ineffectual.

The nineteenth century proved decisive for the political character of Italy. The country ceased to be a "mere geographical expression" and became a unified nation. This process was protracted and lasted until 1870. First there was a great upheaval caused by Napoleon’s conquests (1799-1815), which redrew the country’s map, but only temporarily as it turned out. Nonetheless, the ideas of the French revolution enjoyed great circulation. For the first time in Europe, France had abolished her sodomy laws through an action of the Constituent Assembly in 1791. This beneficial change was extended to Italy, which ceased to criminalize homosexual conduct. Still it was a long time before fundamental change in attitudes was effected.

Change in the sexual vocabulary occurred from two sources, from below and from above. The first trend took the form of the spread of a number of popular terms, many retaining traditional overtones of disparagement. The second trend was represented by the introduction of new learned terms, bearing the putative authority of medicine and science, and deriving for the most part from across the Alps.

The first aspect is bound up with the dialects and the degree to which they began to mix during the period of unification, in which many traveled from one part of the country to another in order to take part in the struggle. The introduction of railways also played an important part.

According to one account Italy boasted twenty distinct dialects. Indeed, they exist today, though their hold is gradually being loosed, largely through the influence of films, the radio and especially television, all of which tend to espouse standard Italian.

As Giovanni Dall’Orto points out, these terms are not uniformly pejorative, and may contain an element of sympathy, sometimes humorously inflected. In this regard he cites buliccio, frocio, finocchio, puppu, jarrusu, buco, and ricchione.

Some of these terms have continued to enjoy a purely local life, while others have spread widely. An instance of the former is the Sicilian term for a passive homosexual, generally young: garrusu (with its variants arrusu, iarrusu, jarrusu). The scholar Giovanbattista Pellegrini (Gli arabismi nelle lingue neolatine, Brescia 1972), has detected an Arabic source c’arusa (fiancee, young person). Still in use, it has been traced back to a law of the fourteenth century. In Messina garrusu may designate a frisky boy, without a sexual connotation.

In some cases the trope becomes interregional, though not necessarily the word itself. This occurs with the conceit that a passive homosexual is a container or receptacle. Thus Piedmontese cupio, which stems from Latin cupa, little bottle, receptacle. Parallels are vasetto (Naples), lumino (South generally), buco, bucaiolo (Tuscan), and busone (Emilian). More generally diffused, though less explicit are culo/culetto, buttocks, and buio, hole. About 1600 the learned occultist Giordano Bruno offers candelaio, candle-stick. All these expressions apply the principle of pars pro toto, reducing the disparaged passive homosexual to a mere body part.

The term checca, an effeminate homosexual, is interregional (Lazio, Tuscany, Lombardy) without being universal. It is a diminutive of Francesca, following a pattern known in other languages of using women’s names, especially diminutives, for male homosexuals (cf. English nelly, Mary-Ann).

Diffusion has yielded the two most common street words in Italian today: finocchio and frocio. Finocchio, fennel, has been traced to a dictionary of Tuscan usage of 1863. Not only was Tuscan the basis for standard Italian, but its major center Florence was the capital of Italy from 1864 to 1870.

The affinities of frocio (or froscio) were originally south Italian. The etymology of this term is disputed; it may have come from a variant of Spanish flojo, lazy, with the original pronunciation "flosho" rhotacized.

Now we turn to the learned vocabulary. United Italy had heightened educational expectations and a wish to establish Italy in the concert of European scholarly knowledge and achievement. Prestige attached to the universities and learned academies situated on the other side of the Alps.

As indicated French influence goes back to the eighteenth century. An example is terzo sesso, which goes back mainly to the French troisième sexe. Towards the end of the century the expression took on overtones of “scientific” sexual intermediacy, influenced by the theories of the German independent gay scholar Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who spent his last years in Italy.

The term sadisme (after the Marquis de Sade) was invented in French in 1834 to refer to both aspects of sadomasochistic activity. A half-century later Richard von Krafft-Ebing created a new binary system, reserving Sadismus for the active role, while introducing Masochismus for the passive. In due course these terms made their way into Italian, with sadismo (also the adjective sadico) and masochismo; eventually sadomachismo.

Central European origin is transparent in more specific terms, omosessuale and (for a time) urningo and urninga (male and female homosexual, respectively). The first survived and became standard; the latter two (due ultimately to K.H. Ulrichs) did not. The physician Arrigo Tamassia struggled with the cumbersome conträre sexuelle Empfindung (contrary sexual feeling). Eventually he hit on a brilliant solution: inversione (with a corresponding noun of agency, invertito). Tapping into older ideas of gender reversal, inversion enjoyed wide international recognition. Linguistically the difference between omosessuale and inversione is that the former is a direct borrowing (with orthographic adjustment), the latter is “import substitution,” what linguists describe as calque.

The most influential Italian figure of international sexology was Cesare Lombroso (1836-1909), a criminologist based in Turin. While Lombroso regarded homosexual behavior as pathological, he does not seem to have introduced any specifically new terminology. He did advance the categories of the uomo delinquente and the donna delinquinte, umbrella terms for criminal deviation under which homosexuality was understood as a matter of course. This period saw the spread of the term degenerazione, fostered by a book Max Nordau had originally written in German, but which was widely read in Italy.

Rising nationalism in nineteenth-century Europe helped revive an older habit of blaming "homosexual perversion" on other nations. The tendency to attribute homosexuality to foreigners is suggested by the expression alla tedesca. (Ironically, from Reformation times onward, Germans ascribed same-sex behavior to Italians.) A rare example of self-accusation, so to speak, stems from Benvenuto Cellini’s Renaissance Autobiography: all’italiana.

Benito Mussolini at first ignored homosexuals, considering the practice mainly a foreign vice, to be tolerated because such visitors brought money. As the regime became more strict in the late thirties, discrimination became common, and Italian gays were sent into internal exile in remote villages and on islands (confino). During the Fascist period, and even somewhat afterwards pederasta remained the standard designation of a group often assumed to be degenerates. The noun referred both to older, "predatory" males and to young effeminates.

The nascent homosexual movements that emerged after World War II in Europe recognized a need to provide honorable substitutes for such disparaging terms. The Dutch gay movement adopted the word "homophile" (loving the same), a term that spread to the United States. Hence the somewhat later Italian omofilo and omofilia. Nonetheless, omosessuale lingered. As in other Western European languages, it lends itself to clipping: omo. After 1970 the shortened form enjoyed popularity as a prefix: baomo-llo (a gay dance), omo-modello (an exemplary gay), omo-parco (a park for cruising). Omofobia came somewhat later, an import of US “homophobia” (introduced there in 1971). In the period after 1970, of course, omosessuale had increasingly to compete with gay, which has become an Italian word.

Such clipped forms as omo are not common. Another, though, is effe (for effeminato), used by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

The verb battere is widely used for cruising; it is also sometimes used of prostitutes in search of customers: hence battone, hustler. “To come out” is dichiararsi, to declare oneself.

During the postwar period Italy fell under a powerful American influence. Journalists, in particular, served as conduits for English-language words and expression. Some are taken over without change, as status-symbol and pop-art. Others follow the pattern of import substitution, as ragazza-squillo, “call girl.” From this is formed ragazzo-squilla, call boy. Some neologisms, such as mod (roughly "hippie") and antipittura, are now dated. Sometimes creative variations appeared, as freakeria. All these are examples of the phenomenon of italese or italianglo, Italian with a heavy sprinkling of English words.

In sexual terminology the period saw a shift away from central Europe, which ceased to be creative in this realm, to English-language sources. Thus transvestismo had come from Germany, where it was coined in 1910); transexualismo, copies a term introduced by the American physician David Cauldwell in 1949.

The repercussions of New York’s Stonewall Rebellion spread the American model of gay liberation throughout the world. Among the products were of course gay itself, as well as gay power (ephemeral) and gay pride. The latter is more commonly rendered orgoglio gay. Recently, the word queer has obtained some limited circulation.

Sometimes an English-language expression is abbreviated. Thus la dark stands for a dark room or back room attached to a bar, where sex is practiced.

There has also been some borrowing of acronyms, as BDSM (bondage and domination; sadomasochism) and LGBT. AIDS was originally written SIDA, corresponding to the Italian name; more recently the compound form HIV/AIDS has come into use.

The letter k is rare in Italian. By substituting k for c some writers seek to convey a notion menace (Amerikano, kompagno), provide emphasis (kretino), or attach irony (kollega). A contemporary Roman gay poet and activist, Massimo Consoli, likes to write the word culo, ass, as kulo, suggesting that this organ, normally regarded as passive, has power.

REFS. Giovanni Dall’Orto, "Le Parole per dirlo," Sodoma, 1986 (exemplary in-depth study of eleven key terms; enlarged version now available at Also accessible at this site is the University of Basel thesis of Jürg Hostettler, Parliamo alla frocia, a helpful historical and conceptual review.


Post a Comment

<< Home