Monday, December 31, 2018

Would you get diet advice from Dr. Glutton or buy badly cut upholstery? Some people do, apparently

Often when I walk through the streets of Pescia, I note a poster that brings a smile to my face. It is for the Maltaglia Tappezzeria. Maltagliati is a family name that is quite common in the city; there are at least 30 people with this surname in Pescia and nearby communities. What makes me chuckle is that one of the Maltagliati families founded a tappezzeria, an upholstery shop. Why is that amusing? Because maltagliati literally means “badly cut,” so the store name is “Badly cut upholstery.”

I’ve noted before that Italy has more surnames than any other country. Not even China, with a population 22 times greater, or the United States, a melting pot of immigrants, has a greater variety. Italy is also famous for giving people nicknames, and in years past, when not everyone had a surname, nicknames sometimes morphed into official last names.

Rovina means "ruin," not the best name for a lawyer.
Another surname even more common in the Pescia area is Malfatti, which means badly made. One has to wonder, didn’t people originally assigned these surnames have some choice? Couldn’t they have refused it? However, Doctor Sergio Nelli, who works in the state archives in Lucca, once pointed out to me that the strange surnames could have originally been more honorable. Perhaps the first Malfatti could have earned that name for being a good judge of craftsmanship, famous for rejecting items that were poorly constructed. It is often stated that the head of the fiorentino Pazzi family was called Pazzo—crazy—for his courage in being the first man over the walls in the Siege of Jerusalem during the First Crusade in 1099. In the case of maltagliati, this word is also the name of a kind of pasta typical of the nearby Emilia-Romagna region. In making maltagliati, the excess parts of the dough, around the edges, are left with irregular shapes and thicknesses—thus the application of of the term poorly cut.” The family name could have come from the pasta—or really any one of a number of other applications.

Something you don't want to do when learning to drive is panic.
However they came about, Italian surnames still can be downright funny when one knows the meaning. One of the benefits of learning Italian is being able to understand and appreciate the roots of Italian names, especially when they are unusual or ironic. Seeing the Maltagliati Tappezzeria sign prompted me to see if I could find more ironic name and occupation combinations, and thanks to others who share this interest, I found several.

Muoio is a form of the verb "to die," literally meaning "I die."
Sometimes the name perfectly fits the occupation, as with our cousin and friend Elena Benvenuti, the area’s premier guida turistica, tour guide. Her surname means “welcome.” There is also a travel agent south of Torino named for proprietress Iris Viaggi, whose name means travel. But these perfectly fitting names aren’t nearly as amusing as those which negate or exaggerate the occupation. One Italian blogger has found a number of these and even documented their veracity by listing the city and phone number of each. I will leave out some details for brevity but will provide necessary translations instead.

Doctor Carlo Mangione is a dietologo, a dietitian. Mangione means “glutton.”

Emilia Guastadisegni is an architetto e pittrice, an architect and painter, but her surname means “spoiled designs.”

Doctor Girolamo delle Donne is an ostetrico, an obstetrician. Delle Donne means “of the women.”

Pietro BaccalĂ  is a pescatore in Genova, a fisherman perhaps specializing in cod (baccalĂ ).

Dottoressa Addolorata Malatesta is a female doctor in Bojana who specializes in headaches. Malatesta means “bad head” (headache is mal di testa). In addition, addolorata means “pained.”

Avvocato Fedele Sposato is a divorzista—a divorce lawyer. Sposato means “married,” and fedele is “faithful.”

There are two funeral directors in Rome with interesting names: Antonio Malattia and Giuseppe Mortale. Hopefully they are not partners, because mortale is “mortal,” malattia is “disease.”

Maria Antonia Puzzolente owns a negozio profumi, a perfume shop, but her surname means “malodorous.”

And finally, here’s one where no translations are needed: Carmelo Erotico is the proprietor of the Sexy Shop in Bologna.

For more stories about crazy and interesting Italian names, read also
A pazzi by any other name
More bizzarri Italian names

Friday, November 23, 2018

Good news—perhaps. Italian traffic tickets are now easier to pay

Several years ago, I wrote a series of blogs about the perils of traffic tickets while driving in Italy. Now its high time for an update. The blogs have received more than 17,000 page views, with the most popular entry written in 2014 and titled “What will happen if you don’t pay your ticket for a traffic violation in Italy?

A few things have changed since I wrote the other entries. How do I know? To help out my readers, I’ve engaged in more first-hand research. Translated, that means I’ve been nabbed two more times by those infernal autovelox cameras, both times in Altopascio, a small city near Lucca. And, truth be told, I didn’t really do it for my readers’ benefit. It just happened, but I may as well get the satisfaction of knowing that my mistakes might help others avoid similar problems.

What has changed is that I now receive clear notification in English explaining the violation and providing easy directions for how to pay using either a credit card or bank transfer. Starting in 2016, some Italian police departments have relegated the collection of fines to a very efficient agency called European Municipality Outsourcing (EMO). It took me only a few minutes to pay my most recent fine for an infraction committed at 5:42 at Piazza del Porto Altopascio on March 21: “Crossed the intersection while the traffic light was displaying red.” The same thing occurred with a fine I received a year earlier for accidentally entering a ZTL, a limited traffic zone, which are ubiquitous in Italy.

However, I should add that in nearby Pisa, a friend recently received a notice of violation and had to pay the old-fashioned way, by making an IBAN bank transfer, so not all police departments are outsourcing to EMO.

I’m pretty sure my latest violation only happened because the traffic was backed up and I got stuck in the intersection, but I’m not contesting the ticket. The photo shows my car in the intersection. The EMO website provides some daunting information about contesting the fine: “The appeal to the Prefect consists of an administrative appeal that must be submitted in Italian by registered mail with proof of receipt. In order to forward this appeal, it is necessary to fill out a specific form and enclose all documentation which is useful and valid for assessment of the appeal by the competent Prefect. The form and the address can both be downloaded from our website. Please note that the reasons for the appeal must be well founded. If the appeal is not accepted, the Prefect will then issue an injunction requesting payment from you of a sum which is at least double the original amount.”

The chances of me being able to convince a prefect of my innocence, in Italian, is only a scintilla above 0%. Do I really want to go to that trouble just to be able to find out how much beyond double the original amount I’ll be required to pay? No thanks. Instead, I took advantage of an opportunity to reduce the fee by 30% by paying within five days of receiving the notice. Thankfully, the traffic tickets do not arrive by registered mail, so EMO does not have any proof of when I received the notice, nor do they ask for any. In fact, I’ve been out of town for the past two months, and I just opened the mail three days ago. The traffic ticket could have been sitting on my desk for weeks, but I entered into the website form the day I actually read the notice, and the website accepted my answer and reduced the fine from 247.11 euro to 181.91 euro.

Of course, there will still be many foreigners who receive traffic tickets and feel they are unfair. The Internet is full of forums where people are griping about ZTL and speeding tickets and asking what will happen if they don’t pay. Most of the time, the latter question results in a flood of answers from other travelers who overwhelmingly feel the system is, for the most part, valid. I’ve now paid three fines in my nearly 10 years of regular travel in Italy, so I stand on the side of the law abiders, though I have strong sympathy for those who end up paying multiple fines for infractions they don’t understand.

In case you are on the fence about this topic, I will close with a smattering of arguments in favor of the law and traffic cameras:

·   “Pay the fine, assuming you were where the letter says you were at the time. Learn from it and next time drive a little slower and pay attention to the speed limits, which are not always posted. You are expected to know these things before you drive a car in that country, same as you are expected to understand road signs and priority rules.”
·   “Traffic cameras are a way of life in Europe. We all get fined occasionally, but the simple way to avoid being fined is to know the speed limit and stick to it.”
·   “At least you only get a fine. Locals get hit with a fine and are in danger of losing their driving license. Pay the bill.”
·   “The ZTL zones in the historic areas of many cities are one of the reasons why many people urge travelers to use trains rather than rental cars except when they are needed to visit the countryside. That suggestion, and information on traffic laws, appears in guidebooks to Italy. It’s very risky to head off on a driving vacation in a different country without researching its traffic laws in advance. It can turn into a very costly experience.”
·   “The cameras are regularly tested and are more accurate at measuring your speed than your car speedometer is. A small percentage of leeway is worked into the speed to allow for that (the EMO website says 5%).”
·   “Assume that Big Brother is watching. It’s smart to know — and follow — the area speed limit.”
·   “I know it's frustrating to get ticketed many weeks later from a camera you can’t confront or dispute in a location you are unlikely to remember. Unfortunately, that’s part of the price of driving in France and Italy, where cameras are everywhere.”
·   “I bet you thought that since you didn’t see Italian cops around you could get away with violating speed limits or maybe drive on bus-only lanes. It doesn’t work that way. The American government reads our emails, and the Italian government films us driving.”
·   “This is a useful reminder about the benefits of transit options other than rental cars. Even disregarding transit rules by throwing away your validated ticket is cheaper than a Hertz administrative fee plus the traffic violation fine.”

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Another branch of the Seghieri family in France is now connected to our extensive Montecarlo tree

Alan della Roma, born to Emilie Seghieri in France.
Another Seghieri has been found. Or rather he has found us. Alan della Roma (who goes by the name Dishual Landell on Facebook) sent me a message in September, stating that his mother was Emilie Seghieri, born in France to Saturnin (Saturnino) Seghieri, whom Alan believed was born in Montecarlo around 1893. Alan lives in the Brittany region of France and speaks English and French but no Italian, and he wanted assistance in finding his Montecarlo roots.

Alan had become Facebook friends with Marco Seghieri of Ponte Buggianese, who himself had only recently discovered his connection to his other Montecarlo relatives. Marco referred Alan to me, and I looked at my charts when I was in Montecarlo recently. At first, I found no connection.

I don’t have access to all the Montecarlo church files in the same way I do to those of many other churches in the Valdinievole. Most churches have put their records of baptisms, marriages and death on file at the parish archives in Pescia, which are open to the public twice a week—but the Montecarlo church of Sant’Andrea has chosen to keep its books in its own offices. Will I be allowed to access them? This is a question I put to the church secretary this week, and she will talk to the priest and get back to me. If the answer is yes, I may be spending quite a bit of time in the church when I return to Montecarlo next February.

Back: Sergio and Manuela.
Meanwhile, thanks to our friend Elena Benvenuti, Lucy and I had dinner this week at the home of Sergio Nelli and his wife Manuela, with Elena serving as interpreter. Sergio is an author, historian, official at the state archives in Lucca and an authority on the historical and genealogical origins of Montecarlo. He’s also our next door neighbor. It was Dr. Nelli who had in 2012 provided me with my line of descent from my great great grandfather Seghiero Andrea Seghieri (1818-1892) all the way back to Giunta Seghieri, born around 1255 in Vivinaia (an area now called Montecarlo).

The brother of Gaetano Seghieri,
one of Dishual's ancestors.
Doctor Nelli has already recorded the names of every Seghieri listed in the church archives into his personal databases, which include both handwritten journals and computer files, so it took us only half an hour to trace Alan’s line back to Giunta, our earliest known ancestor. As for the connection between Alan’s family and my own—and the other Seghieri families of Montecarlo’s Marcucci neighborhood—our closest common ancestor is Mariano Seghieri (1415-1469). Alan’s late mother Emilie would be my 12th cousin, so Alan is my 12th cousin once removed.

Seghieri crest in Montecarlo.
He comes from a Seghieri line that was quite distinguished, with some of his ancestors labeled doctor, captain, lieutenant and alfiere (a type of civil guard). Many of the brothers of his ancestors were also priests and abbots, and one was the bishop of Sovana. This distinguished Bishop Seghieri is now buried in the crypt of the Montecarlo church (read Random and intriguing . . . Seghieri discoveries). Members of this family line owned the large house and garden next to Montecarlo’s Porta Fiorentina, the one which still has the Seghieri crest over the door.

“I’m very glad to discover all this about my ancestors, and particularly at this time of remembering dead relatives,” Alan wrote. “I’m 75 years old and I would like to go to Montecarlo before my death, not only for the country but to meet longtime forgotten relatives. Many thanks for your help.”

Monday, November 5, 2018

We will miss cousin Dante Seghieri, a colorful, memorable local character

We were heading out to pick up a friend at the Pescia train station when we drove past the Poggio restaurant and saw the usual posters announcing the death of a local resident. Only this time it wasn’t really usual, because one of the posters was for someone we knew, Dante Seghieri, age 91. We picked up our friend and went straight to the church in San Salvatore, because the funeral would start just a few minutes later.

Dante was one of the first Seghieris we had met on via Mattonaia, when he was 84. At our first encounter, he gave us a long dissertation on some of the misfortunes in his life. He had buried two daughters and his wife, and one of his daughter’s deaths had been particularly traumatic. She had been killed in an auto accident at around age 20 just before she was to be married.
We saw this announcement just in time to make it to the mass
for Dante on Sunday.

After that, every time we saw Dante, he began talking about the same things, with his younger daughter’s death always at the center of his grieving. It obviously had affected him severely, since it is unusual for someone to bring up the same sad topic with virtual strangers every time he sees them. As we got to know him a bit better over the years, we finally did have some conversations with him about other topics, but each encounter had its share of difficulties, because he didn’t speak clearly, and we didn’t understand Italian thoroughly. Still, it was always a comforting sight each year upon our return to San Salvatore to see Dante walking down the road.

He lived alone in his family home at Casone Marcucci, and we thought at first that he had no close family around him. But Ivo Seghieri told us that Dante had a son who lived nearby, and we gradually came to realize that some of the women who worked on the big meals at the Casolare dei Fiori were part of Dante’s family. Gisella, who had always impressed us with her cheerful personality, turned out to be his daughter-in-law, and two of her daughters—Dante’s grandchildren—also worked occasionally at the Casolare. They had been serving us meals for several years before I realized that they were my distant cousins.

In our five years of living part-time at the Casolare, I eventually put together a chart showing how all the Seghieri families in the Marcucci neighborhood are related to each other and me. Dante was my dad’s 7th cousin. I’m grateful that we returned to live in Italy for a few months a year and had the chance to meet Dante.  Attending his funeral also reminds me that we continue to advance, however slowly, in our involvement in the Montecarlo community.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Massi the driver—and photographer—a great choice to experience the rural beauty and character of Tuscany

Massi the Driver. All photos on this page are by Massi
Massimiliano Mori of Southern Tuscany is known to many as Massi the Driver because he is licensed to drive tourists to and from their destinations or take them on food and wine tours. While he not be an official tour guide per se, many of his customers consider him the best guide they’ve ever had, simply because he is so knowledgeable about the best places to take stunning scenic photos, eat lunch or dinner, or sample wine, oil and antipasto.
A misty morning in the Southern Tuscany

I’ve never actually met Massi, but I’ve seen some of his photos in a Facebook group of which we share membership, and since then we have become friends on Facebook. He has previously granted me permission to use some of his images in my blog posts, but he has so many stunning photos that I decided to dedicate an entire entry to him—simply because his photography deserves a wider audience. Look at the photos and see for yourself!
Sunset in the Crete Sinesi.

As far as his driving services, Massi is described as gracious, accommodating, attentive and knowledgeable. He lives in Asciano, the center of Crete Senesi, about 15 minutes from Siena. Crete Senesi literally means the clay of Siena, and a tourism site describes it thusly: “It is a singular region. Like an island: exuberant, uncompromising, where the sun really shines, the wind blows unhindered, the light is blinding, and one’s gaze can range ruthlessly everywhere, chasing distant horizons, magnificent lines, and unforgiving wastelands.”
Cartizze Hill.

Massi speaks English as well as Italian, and he provides transportation to and from airports, railway stations, bus stations, ports and moorings for cruise ships—basically anywhere one wants to go. Though he advertises himself as a driver, his customers know he is far more. He is familiar with stunning but little-known attractions in the region, including farms, factories, sagras, panoramic vistas and friendly and welcoming local characters. He will take photo enthusiasts out early in the morning or the late evening, when the light is best, and he knows all the most photogenic locations.
Chianti Shire.

I’ve stated before that the most memorable aspects of a trip to Italy are not just the sights but the people, and I’ve a feeling that Massi’s customers remember him fondly. If I were taking a trip to Southern Tuscany again, I think I’d just call Massi up and tell him to put together an agenda of his favorite cities. Take a look some of his many glowing reviews on Tripadvisor.
Castello di Brolio

Ashley F writes: “Massi built the tour around what we wanted to see and picked great locations that we would have never found on our own. We visited two wineries, had an espresso in a small town and enjoyed a huge cheese tasting of locally made pecorino. Massi was very knowledgeable about the region and taught us about wine production as we drove between stops.”
Grape vines in the fall.

John C. from Balmain, Australia, said: “Massi took us to four fantastic wineries, all of which were unique in their own way. We got a little out of hand and excited in how many bottles of wine we purchased, and Massi arranged for them to be sent home—he really went the extra mile! He was so friendly and informative and was obviously well respected by the winery operators.”
The famous Ponte Vecchio in Firenze.

Shane and Bev from Dartmouth, Canada, wrote: “We didn't have any set agenda and Massi was more than willing to help out but was also flexible to do whatever we wanted. He was professional, knowledgeable, and put us at ease immediately. He took us to a couple of great wineries and we got to see some views that we will never forget.”
Patterns in the sky.

Ciao Italy from San Antonio, Texas, wrote a rave review: “Massi is gifted at his profession. I say profession and not job because what he offers is far more than a driving service. He grew up in Tuscany, knows the winery profession first-hand, and appreciates/understands fine food/wine. He is always learning, networking, and improving his services. He takes trips to new locations in the off-season to build knowledge and contacts and expand his offerings.
Badia a Passignano.

“As for the driving portion, Italy is very particular on who may drive tourists, so his license as a driver is important. It allows him, for example, to drive through the pedestrian-packed streets of Siena and meet you in the historic walking zones. His skill as a driver is top-notch. He drove ambulances in the region in the past, so his knowledge of the area is excellent, and he is skilled at maneuvering and navigating his vehicle on the twisty narrow Tuscan roadways. His automobile was very comfortable, and the ride was always smooth and enjoyable. Massi understands the importance of details. He provided extras which made the trip more enjoyable, such as chilled drinking water in a cooler and delicious pastries from a local bakery.
Sundown at Cinque Terre.

“Massi was incredibly patient with customizing and planning the itinerary. Many of the Tuscan guides offer a take-it-or-leave-it tour. As a consequence, if you are hoping to visit a winery or site that isn’t part of the pre-conceived plan, you will miss the opportunity. Massi, however, was accommodating and flexible. If you don’t have a list of places you would like to go, he will schedule an amazing day for you. If you are like me, and tend to advance-plan and revise, Massi will work with you to craft an unforgettable trip.

“Massi has an impeccable sense of timing. I would invariably try to overschedule the day, hoping to fit in one more winery or site. Fortunately, he presciently and gently course corrected so that he made every appointment on time. Thanks to Massi, we never felt hurried, yet we managed to achieve all our important objectives.
Castello di Meleto.

“My only hesitation in recommending Massi is that if I tell you how great his services were, he might not be available for the next trip to Tuscany!”
Sunrise in Tuscany.
Pienza, Valdorcia.

Cinque Terre in November
Conegliano Valdobbiadene.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Restaurateur Jack Amato spins a fascinating tale about his early life as a proud Sicilian immigrant in New York

What would you do it you had to pay protection money to run your business? If your uncles were members of the Mafia, and they didn’t approve of you? If you were held at gunpoint by masked men and then shot in the stomach? These are questions that young Giacomo “Jack” Amato faced shortly after he came from Sicily to New York in December of 1965.

Jack Amato on the beach in Florida.
Amato describes himself as a proud “man of honor” who, following the teachings and examples of his father, refused to back down and demanded respect from the gangsters and hoodlums in his neighborhood. He tells his riveting story with candor and clarity in the book A Father’s Belief, available at Amazon and Xlibris.

Giacomo (writing under the assumed  name Gino in the book) entered junior high school in Brooklyn at age 12. He had to deal with not knowing how to speak English and being bullied by kids from other ethnic groups. He fought daily and quit school when he was 14. He learned to make pizza in a local restaurant, a skill that became instrumental when his dad opened a pizzeria to help the family realize the American dream.

Gino/Giacomo and his dad immediately encountered street gangs, the American mafia and demands for payments for protection. Father and son stood up to a group of hoodlums who threatened to scare away customers, and they refused to make payments. When Gino met Maria, they fell in love and married. After that, Gino began to have conflicts with Maria’s uncles, especially Fat Joe Massa, an American gangster who later became the boss of the notorious Bonanno crime family. Gino overcame treachery and deceit from his uncle and survived getting two gunshot wounds that nearly claimed his life as his wife was about to give birth to their first child.

The book is promoted as “based on the real story of Sicilian immigrants,” but it is classified as fiction. The realization that the events that Gino encountered seemed to match perfectly with Amato’s own biography prompted me to call Amato and ask how much of the story is true and how much fiction.

“It’s 90 percent true,” Giacomo told me. “I’ve changed some names and added details. It was a rough life; I was always getting into arguments. I was advised to call the book fiction because I’m not famous, and people would expect a person to be famous before they would buy his memoir.”

The book, which took five years to write, is “a tribute to my father,” said Amato, who now resides in Port Saint Lucie, Florida. His dad Nino was a fisherman and respected civic leader when in Sicily. He told Giacomo the story of the pure and honorable knight Orlando Furioso and encouraged his son to “be strong, to never give in, and protect and defend what is right and good.” Treat your elders, friends and your government with respect, Nino taught his son. “A real man doesn’t need to be bad to be tough. A man needs to use force only against people who are bad. That’s power.”

“I loved and feared my father,” Amato writes. “I trusted him and respected his words. He was like a God to me.”

Amato in his restaurant in Port
Saint Lucie, Florida.
However, Amato did not always follow Nino’s advice. After developing a successful restaurant, candy shop and gambling den, he became involved in a business venture which required him to become friendly with and dependent on members of the Mafia—and this nearly led to his demise.

At first, I was sorely distracted by the writing style. Amato completed less than two years of school in America, and that at a time when he was still trying to learn English. His writing is on the rough side. He often changes from the past to present tense. He usually refers to the main character in the third person, as Gino, but sometimes he slips into the first person. Words are misspelled. Sentences can be fragments. Facts are repeated. It’s obvious that the book is self-published and could have been improved with a good editor.

However, I soon came to appreciate that the writing style also reveals much about Amato’s unique style and personality. He was an uneducated but street-smart teenager, and that came through in his choice of words and sentence structure. The voice is authentic and realistic, along the lines of the sincere, juvenile voice of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. Reading the book made me picture Amato spinning tales with friends in his restaurant.

I asked Giacomo if I could reveal that the book is not actually fiction, and he gave permission. “If I had used their (mobsters) real names, I might have an issue,” he said. “They were powerful people. But it’s no problem. I didn’t mention anyone they killed, and besides, they’re now in witness protection programs, so they have new names anyway.”

Saturday, October 27, 2018

What does it mean to be called a “wop” or a “dago”? Is it offensive?

Every Italian-American knows what wop means. It stands for “without papers (or passport),” right? It’s because Italians who came to America in the early 1900s didn’t have proper work documents, but some employees still hired them and paid them in cash. My Italian-American cousins and friends taught me this when I was a boy growing up in the 1950s and 60s, and we sometimes used the term when speaking to each other. We also called each other dago, and this, I was told has a similar story. Italian laborers would be paid daily, or “as the day goes,” instead of with salaries or weekly paychecks. Almost every Italian-American I know swears by these explanations.

It turns out these beliefs can’t be traced to any reliable source and are almost certainly not true. It’s kind of like the statement that we all need to drink eight glasses of water a day, a commonly held belief which also has no historical or medical source to confirm it.

Why are linguists so sure that these ethnic labels, which many Italian-Americans consider offensive, originate from different sources?

First, linguists point out that acronyms themselves did not come into common use until the mid-1900s, while the word wop is thought to have first been used in the late 1800s. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (, “The word acronym itself wasn’t coined until 1943. The lack of need for such a word suggests the degree to which acronyms previously were not a part of daily life.” Since then, some have coined an even newer word, backronym, to describe the common acronym misconceptions that have been promulgated and that have now been debunked by linguists.

Historians also have had their say on the subject, pointing out that papers were not needed to obtain a job during the heaviest years of Italian immigration. “Before World War I, we had virtually open borders,” writes Mae Ngai, author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. “You didn’t need a passport. You didn’t need a visa. There was no such thing as a green card. If you showed up at Ellis Island, walked without a limp, had money in your pocket, and passed a very simple (intelligence) test in your own language, you were admitted.”

This 2004 book tells about the Guappo in
history, art and dress.
OK, so where did the word wop come from? The most plausible explanation and the one which most linguists now hold, is that it was a distortion of a word that Italian immigrants themselves used (and Southern Italians still use today). The Merriam-Webster dictionary states that wop originates from the Southern Italian dialectal term guappo, roughly meaning “dandy,” “dude” or “stud.” It was often used to describe powerful and well-dressed men in the Camorra, a gang in Napoli.
1978 film: The Last Guappo
The Spanish have a similar word, guapo, which can mean “good-looking” or “dandy.” It is often used in a playful or humorous way to address one’s friends. Southern Italians pronounce it “wahp-po,” and they also are prone to unaspirated stops (meaning they swallow or skip the last syllable of a word). When Americans overhead immigrant workers addressing each other as guappo, or wop, they eventually began using it as a derogatory word to describe all Italians.

The original caption for this: The guappo Enzo Turco (left),
in the shoe store Il Turco Napolitano. 
As for dago, this word also predates the Italian diaspora of the early 1900s. Dave Wilton, writing for and citing both the Oxford English Dictionary and Historical Dictionary of American Slang, states, “This derogatory term did not originally refer to Italians, which is its chief sense nowadays. Dago comes from the Spanish given name Diego, and over time has extended in meaning to include Portuguese and eventually Italians. It dates to the 1830s.”  Diego was an oft-used Portuguese and Spanish name. In similar fashion, British sailors are called Jacks, and Irishmen are called Paddies (for Patrick).

Wilton further points out that in E.C. Wines’ 1833 book, Two Years in the Navy, there is a reference to the natives of the Spanish island Minorca: “These Dagos, as they are pleasantly called by our people, were always a great pest.” The application of the term to Italians dates to at least the 1870s, from Francis Henry Sheppard’s 1875 book Love Afloat: A Story of the American Navy: “Our band is all broke up. Arrowson has got every Dago, and Greaser, and nigger against me.”

I was actually disappointed to read that “without papers” has been debunked, because I had once considered using wop as part of my book title. I worked for a year in Italy in 2001 without a visa or work permit, so I considered using the title: “An American Wop in Italy.” When I discovered the real origin of wop, I threw out the idea and settled on An American Family in Italy: Living la dolce vita without permission.

Cover of a 2017 album from Southern Italy.
Of course, I was also worried that my fellow Italian-Americans would find it offensive if I had used wop in my title, so I was inclined to discard it anyway. Why do some people find wop and dago offensive? It all has to do with the disparaging way these words have been used in the past. They were spoken as insults, and people got the idea and were justifiably insulted. In the same way, African-Americans now avoid the word Negro (derived from the Latin niger or the Spanish word negro, both of which mean black) and, of course, its even more degrading derivations. Some Irish-Americans now say that being called a Paddy in America is an insult, even though it is common for the Irish in Ireland to use that term in describing themselves. If the word is used as an insult in some contexts, it comes to be seen as demeaning in most contexts.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in an age and community where it was considered cool to be Italian, thanks to famous singers, celebrities, politicians and sports stars of Italian origin. Most of my non-Italian friends had never even heard the terms wop or dago, so for those of us with Italian blood, these were words spoken with a smidgen of pride, showing that we belonged to a special ethnic group. And we did, of course, and indeed still do.

Author's note: What about those G-word Italian American nicknames: Guido, Goomba and Guinea? Read more here: