As they do every year end, the major institutions researching, preserving, explaining—and, ultimately, taking care of—the Italian language announce a list of neologisms, i.e., new terms or phrases that have made it into the vocabulary and can thus be considered official Italian words for all intents and purposes.
Who makes the decisions?
Among the major institutions we just mentioned are Devoto-Oli, one of the best-known Italian monolingual dictionaries, whose first edition is dated 1971; Accademia della Crusca, a society of scholars of Italian linguistics and philology, as well as one of the main research institutions of the Italian language and the oldest linguistic academy in the world; Zanichelli, a publisher specialized in textbooks, dictionaries, and reference books; and Treccani, a legendary Italian-language encyclopedia.
Ultimately, however, the list is created by those who use the Italian language: people interacting with each other in real life or via social media, mass media, politicians, and public figures. Italian, like many other languages, is alive, and it evolves over time. Some changes are very slow, like grammar twists or exceptions gradually being accepted as a norm; some others occur quickly, like new words and phrases entering everyday conversations and later, the official dictionaries.
As in every other aspect of life, people react differently to changes. Some accept them enthusiastically; others take some time to acknowledge them. Language is no exception. While some are always ready to welcome and use new words, others turn up their noses and try to defend the norm by pausing the language in time.
New and revised words
Unsurprisingly, most new words come from youth slang. In 2022, several words came from the internet and a few from the still-current pandemic. If we look at the Devoto-Oli, this year’s edition also revised some definitions that were clearly male-oriented, if not sexist tout court. Comportati da uomo (behave like a man), for instance—which means to act strong and brave—needed an update, and this finally happened. Readers are now warned that this phrase is based on a stereotype.
As for the new words, 2022 welcomed bannato, covidico, and transfobico. Bannato comes from the English “to ban” and means banned, covidico means affected by Covid-19, and transfobico translates as transphobic. Just these three terms we took as examples clearly reflect our current reality, public debate, and general sensitivity.
There is also acchiappaclic (clickbait), Didattica Digitale Integrata (commonly called DAD and meaning distance learning), autosorveglianza (self-monitoring, referring to Covid-19), binario (binary) versus non-binario (non-binary), bolla sociale (social bubble), and cringe (no need to translate here!). Together, they convey a pretty accurate picture of the reality we share, don’t they? Politics cannot miss, and so we have pacifinto—combining pacifista (pacifist) and finto (fake).
And then we have words combining trends, current events, and a lot of technology: dissare (from “to diss”), memare (to create and/or share a meme), algocrazia (algocracy), and greenwashing. Speaking of green, there’s a whole new set of words we now commonly use to talk about environment-related issues and challenges, like eco-ansia (eco-anxiety). Sometimes a foreign term does not find a suitable translation, and so it is used as is, as in the cases of hope fatigue, for instance, and kaitiakitanga, from the Maori language, indicating the moral duty of everyone to protect the environment.
Same words, new articles?
A presentation of new Italian words cannot be complete without mentioning an ongoing debate in the Italian language, in particular regarding words and phrases that denote professions, titles, and offices. Many of these have traditionally been done or held by men, and thus the terms have been in masculine form only—but things are finally, if slowly, changing.
Until recently, no one had to bother with finding a title for a female Prime Minister. Now that Italy has a woman as a Prime Minister, what do we call her? Some argue that il Presidente del Consiglio, as it’s always been (in its masculine form), shouldn’t change, since it refers to the office, not the person. According to many others, instead, the (good) news should be celebrated with a new article: la Presidente del Consiglio.
The same applies to many other offices. Do we designate a female mayor as la sindaco, il sindaco, or la sindachesssa? How about a female politician? La donna politica, la politica, il politico, il politico donna? The rules are in flux, and the debate is at times fervent, but one firm point can already be established: a discussion around the language is a good sign of its vitality. So … buon 2023 and beyond, italiano!
By Claudia Quesito