Let me tell you what I love most about teaching. It isn’t the opportunity it gives me to share my favourite things — books, words, cultural lessons. It isn’t the creativity it affords me in putting together my lesson plans. It’s the impromptu conversations that come of meeting with students that allow me to explore issues I might not have had it not been for their questions or observations.
What’s the word for ‘awkward’ in Italian?
This question came to me from a friend turned colleague turned student (and, overall, a dear person in my life) and gave me pause. Well, there isn’t one, is there? I thought. The closest thing to “awkward” Italian has is “imbarazzato” or “strano,” but neither carries quite the same loaded meaning. “Imbarazzato” means embarrassed, and “strano,” strange. Together, they might make something resembling “awkward,” but still not exactly that. Because what is ‘awkward’ to an Italian? How do you describe this very particular mix of social unease, feeling of discomfort, inability to fit in or contribute confidently to conversation? How do you translate “derp”?
Her question led to a larger conversation about the idiosyncrasies of Italian society and the language used to describe it. There is no word for ‘awkward’ because Italians are not, by my observation, awkward. Or at least they don’t present themselves to be. While they might be feeling all of the symptoms of awkwardness, a long history of social gesturing, polite behaviour, and courtly ritual has bred into them the wonderful quality of sprezzatura so decidedly absent in North American society.
What’s the word for ‘sprezzatura’ in English?
Actually, a more accurate question would be, what’s the word for ‘sprezzatura’ in modern Italian? It was one of the first words I learned and truly understood during my undergraduate studies of Italian literature at McGill. Yet, ironically, when I used it with Italian colleagues a few years ago, I was met with blank stares and questioning faces. Sprezzatura? You mean spazzatura? (trash). No. I mean sprezzatura. That quality of “effortless elegance” that every self-respecting courtier possessed and displayed on social occasions. Hasn’t everyone read sixteenth-century writer Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier?
No. Everyone hasn’t. Who would have thought?! Yet Italians ooze this sense of self-possessed balance, this cool grace, or at the very least, a comfortable confidence in all social situations that so evades my own upbringing. We thought about it for a while, my friend and I. Apart from a centuries-held (if subconscious) appreciation for courtly behaviour, why should (I should specify, adult) Italians so consistently come across as socially poised? Is it because they grow up in a monolingual environment that has never made them self-conscious about their proficiency in a non-native language? They have never been made to choose between English and French, as we have in Quebec, but then again, neither have Americans (who also constitute a monolingual population for all intents and purposes), and sprezzatura is just as foreign — and awkwardness just as current — on their side of the border. Is it because Italians often grow up belonging to a very specific social circle of their choice — the trend-setters (or followers), the hipsters, the alternative rockers, the intellectuals, the hippies — and rarely have to socialize beyond their comfort zone? Does this social safety lend them the assertiveness that eludes North Americans as we bounce around from one social circle to another based on how we are feeling that day and which part of our identity we’d like to put under the microscope? And what does it mean to be a more “individualistic” culture that allows you to be many things at once without risking social ostracism or the gossip of your peers? What does it mean to be Millennials or Generation Xers in North America who have made a practice of this chameleon-tic camouflage? And shouldn’t we be better at it at this point?
In Italy, oddly enough, ‘camaleontico’ — the adjectival form of ‘camaleonte’ (chameleon) is actually a word, though of negative connotation. To be ‘camaleontico’ means to be false, changing, two-faced, opportunistic. As though one person cannot of two minds be.
My husband tells me I’m wrong about this whole thing. That Italians can be awkward — disadattati sociali. But those who are become nouns, not a version of themselves qualified by an adjective. One is not ‘awkward’ as one is ‘beautiful’ or ‘intelligent’ or ‘clever’ or ‘shy’ in Italy. One is a social deviant, a misfit. At best, he is ill-suited to society, which sounds far worse than awkward ever could. He is his own, new thing, different from the others. Dis-adattato: un-adapted. A negation of the norm.
He tells me sprezzatura is a concept I’ve romanticized because of my profound, lingering love of early modern and Renaissance Italian literature, and that not all Italians are as easy-breezy as I imagine them to be. I tell him that he is probably right, but that on the outside, they appear to be so. Sprezzatura starts as the simulation of poise that, with practice and conviction, becomes true poise over time. Fake-it-till-you-make-it kind of stuff. And if there is one thing that most Italians are good at, it’s faking it. Just ask the neighbourhood nonna- watch for the differences between what they say amongst themselves about their neighbours and what they say directly to their neighbours.
One word both languages have is gossip: pettegolezzi. Speaking (ill) of others seems to be a practice of a universal nature.
Earlier this week, the Accademia della Crusca, the oldest extant Italian-language dictionary, decreed that the phrase “esci il cane” — until now, only common parlance in the southern regions and their way of saying “take out the dog” — is grammatically correct. General consternation ensued among Italian grammar purists. But why? “Escire” is not a verb, and “uscire” (to go out) requires an indirect object (one cannot ‘go out’ a person or thing). Besides, there are other verbal phrases to use in exactly the context of ‘esci il cane’ : porta fuori il cane (take the dog out) or ‘fai uscire il cane’ (let the dog out). But “esci il cane” is used and understood often enough by enough people to be considered grammatically sound as part of a living, morphing, evolving Italian. The language has been around for centuries. Its standard version is as old as Dante. Yet, there is no sign of North American ‘awkwardness’ within it. I wonder why.