It is a new year, and every new beginning marks some other beginnings end. It the spirit of beginnings I thought it might be a good idea to look at the origin of some very common Italian words. These are words I use when in Florentine and Venetian persona.
Ciao (hello/goodbye, informal)
Salve (hello, formal)
Buongiorno (good day, formal)
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word ciào (chau̇/chow) is “Italian, from Italian dialect, literally, (I am your) slave, from Medieval Latin sclavus.”
I did a little more digging and found that the origin of ciào is from the Venetian dialect word “s-ciavo”, used in the phrase “sono vostro s-ciavo” which literally meant “I am your slave”. Sono vostro s-ciavo was shortened to s-ciào vostro, then to s-ciào. With centuries of usage s-ciào became ciào.
The Venetian “s-ciavo” came from the Latin “slavus” to indicate Slavic people. During the peak of the Venetian Republic in the 1400s, when Venice ruled most of the commerce in the World, most slaves were Slavic. So, the origin of the greeting is an extreme form of submission to the person you are speaking to, something like, “I am at your service”. The word for slave in modern Italian remains “schiavo“.
Needless to say that the racial and social connotation of the word ciào have long been lost. Ciào remains to the present day as a very informal greeting or parting word. This means that unless you know someone already, or unless they say ciào to you first, your best bet is to pick another slightly more formal greeting, like salve (sawl-vay).
Salve is probably the least known Italian greeting but a very useful one nontheless. Salve comes from the Latin verb salvere, literally meaning “to be well, to be in good health”. It is a very good one to use when greeting someone you do not know, or do not know well. It is not as versitile as ciào, and should only be used when greeting, not parting. A proper response to salve is buongiorno or buonasera.