In Italian, we salute family and friends with the casual greeting “ciao”. We express this four-letter word interchangeably to indicate both “hello” and “goodbye.” Many times, we also use it as a parting salutation with the echoing version “ciao, ciao” similarly to “bye, bye now!” Ciao is also a primary greeting learned by our Italian babies with the idiomatic sentences “Fai ciao, ciao con la manina!” (“wave bye, bye with your hand”). Sometimes, we utter it to communicate a sense of resignation with the exclamation “va’ be ciao!” meaning “forget about it.” In a different context, as reported in the Treccani dictionary, we make use of it to imply the end of the relationship: “dopo un anno di matrimonio si è stancato e ciao” (“after a year of marriage, he got tired and goodbye!”). What makes ciao interesting, though, is not only its versatile character, but also its linguistic evolution across time and space.
Surprisingly, centuries ago, ciao was not the informal greeting we intend it to be nowadays. On the contrary; it was a formal salutation spoken by a person belonging to a lower social class, such as a servant. To clarify the latter statement, we need to travel back in time to the northeastern part of Italy, or more precisely, to the Venetian region. The word ciao, in fact, derives from the Venetian dialectal word s’ciàvo (slave or servant). Originally, this term represented a servant’s common way to salute and show respect to his master. By pronouncing s’ciàvo, or more specifically s’ciàvo vostro, he literally meant “I am your slave” or, in a less degrading meaning, “I am your servant.” These servile statements were much like the Latin servus of “your most humble servant.”
Furthermore, in the 19th and 20th centuries, ciao spread from the Venetian region to other parts of Northern Italy, undergoing a slight linguistic metamorphosis. From s’ciàvo, it simply became the ciao of modern Italian, losing in the process the peculiar Venetian cadence. Thereafter, it became a common salute throughout the rest of the Italian peninsula. During this transition, it shed its reverential character and became a standard way to say hi and goodbye to family and friends with no distinction of a person’s social status, gender or age.
Eventually, this term continued to grow in popularity and began to appear in literature, songs and movies. Its first debut in the Italian literature occurred within the novel “Eros” (1874) by Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga. In chapter 20 of the book, it emerges in the opening line of a conversation as a young lady greets the main protagonist Alberto with a cheerful, “Ciao!” During WWII, ciao resounds in the refrain of the partisan’s song “Bella Ciao” with the following words: “una mattina mi sono svegliato, o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao! Una mattina mi sono svegliato/e ho trovato l’invasor.” (“One morning, I woke up, o bella ciao! Bella, ciao, ciao!/ One morning I woke up and found the invader”).
Hereafter, ciao was introduced to English speakers thanks to American writer Ernest Hemingway and his semi-autobiographical novel “A Farewell to Arms” (1929). Coincidentally, Hemingway’s novel takes place in the Venetian region where he worked as a Red Cross driver during WWI. In Hemingway’s novel, ciao shows up as “hello” when lieutenant Rinaldi greets Henry with “Ciaou! What kind of time do you have?” and as a goodbye when Henry departs from the priest and pronounces: “So long,” I said in dialect. “Ciaou”, he repeated.”
Elsewhere, ciao was exported to other parts of the globe following the Italian immigration of the 19th century. Imaginably so, Italians living abroad carried on their natural habit to salute their relatives and friends in the same manner they had in their motherland. As a result, it was absorbed and consequently adopted by other cultures becoming a part of their linguistic repertoire. Ciao is spoken in European languages such as in French and German, though it mainly exists as “goodbye.” It also has linguistic equivalents across the Spanish speaking countries. This expressive interjection exists in Spain as in chaou, in Argentina as in chau and in Chile as chao.
Compared to its Venetian ancestor, the contemporary ciao still symbolizes a cordial greeting, but in a much more amicable and informal context than its predecessor. From a linguistic point of view, it has acquired a richer identity peppered with more vibrant meaning and purpose than just the common “hi” and “goodbye.” Outside Italy, ciao has travelled a long way, landing a spot in the dictionaries of several different languages, adding a touch of Italian character in daily conversations of other foreign cultures. Ultimately, ciao represents the most widely-known Italian greetings used by non-natives, a tiny expressive interjection that requires no translation.