Tuesday, December 29, 2020

More nicknames and disparaging terms for Italians: Those G-words

As a follow-up to my post on the origin of the terms “wop” and “dago” to label Italian Americans in a negative way, I’d like to cover a few other words used in a comparable way.

Tony and his Youtube
guide to life as a guido.
Guido is similar to dago in its origins. Guido was a much-used first name in Italy during the early 1900s. I am related to four Guido Spadonis from the small town of Ponte Buggianese who immigrated to the United States between 1900 and 1920. Since there was no corresponding name in the English language, people named Guido tended to stand out as Italians, as no other ethnic group used this name.

This practice was applied to other groups as well. People from Ireland were called “paddies” because of the frequency of the name Patrick. British sailors were nicknamed “jacks” for the same reason. Fritz, the nickname for Friedrich, also came to be used in a somewhat derogatory manner when referring to Germans. However, many Italians embrace the term guido and freely use it to describe their ethnic identity.

I caught this band at the Festa
Italiana in Seattle one year.
Another term, “goombah” or “goomba,” is also considered a term of endearment used by Italian Americans to refer to their compatriots, and that is fairly close to its original meaning. “Cumpare,” “cumpĂ ,” and “compare” are all Italian dialect words that derive from compater (cousin) or compatriota (countryman). Italian Americans developed their own dialect words, and “goomba” is one of them—a mispronunciation of cumpĂ . However, just like any other word, it can be considered offensive when used in a disparaging context.

Perhaps the term Italian Americans consider the most offensive is “guinea,” which is a crude way to tag Italians with the notorious n-word. From the 1600s and onwards, Guinea was used as a geographical term for the coast of West Africa. The online etymology dictionary Etymonline.com states that guinea is used as “a derogatory term for an Italian (1896)” that derives “from Guinea Negro (1740s) ‘black person, person of mixed ancestry,’ (and) applied to Italians probably because of their dark complexions relative to northern Europeans.”

Because of its association with one of today’s most distasteful racial epithets, and the fact that it doesn’t share any roots in the Italian language, guinea is one of the few terms for Italian Americans that I find truly inappropriate and insulting.

These terms are all unique to North American culture. However, Italians in Italy have their own disparaging nicknames for their fellow countrymen, representing dislike and prejudice between northerners and southerners. Southerners call those from the north Polentoni (polenta eaters), while people in the south are called Terroni (literally farmers or peasants—but somewhat like the American terms redneck or bumpkin). Similar to many nicknames and/or epithets, it is usually not offensive to be called a polentone or terrone by one’s friends from the same region—but the terms can be fighting words when used by outsiders or enemies. Context is the key, as it is for so many of these slang labels.

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Where do "wop" and "dago" come from? Click here to find out.

3 comments:

  1. In the navy in the Sixties and visiting the port of Naples, I'd only just got off the boat and heard one of the Italian vendors call out to me, "'Ey, skinny guinea." I had to smile because he'd obviously pegged me as a fellow Italian even though my mom was German. But yes, I look very much like my Italian dad. Anyway, considering the subject, I thought it both amusing and apropos to mention it.

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  2. My Uncle Costanzo ( my godfather ) would call me "goomba" all the time. He came from Capri when he was 16 and had me drinking espresso when I was about 7>

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  3. Not of the origin if it was from my uncle, my mom's brother-in-law, and his family or just a name he picked up somewhere. He would call me Pasquali. I only remember it as a result of reading of your article. To me, it was a term of endearment, since my uncle did not use it with my older brother. Then, again, it was probably easier to remember to say Pasquali than is was to remember my name. I will never know when he picked up the name Pasquali, because Uncle Bill passed away about 20 years ago. He took me fishing as often as he could since he and my aunt had no children.

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Comments welcome.