The History of the Word Ciao & Why It’s Not Recommended in Italy

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Because I am out of town caring for a mother after surgery, I decided to republish an older piece. This is a blast from 2014, in case it wasn’t already! When I return home, I will be back with new articles.


Ciao Bella (creative commons), Chris Brown

It’s easy to believe we already know the basics of the Italian language, even before we get on the plane to Rome. This is something I do. I used to tell my Italian students that they wouldn’t starve after having eaten many meals at Italian restaurants. The truth is that even though some Italian words may not sound foreign to you, there are cultural nuances that you won’t be able to understand unless you’re familiar with the culture.

Consider, for example, the word Ciao. It can be used to mean “hello” or “goodbye”. It has become a universal greeting. Yet? It’s a mistake to say it while traveling in Italy.

You know what I mean? Let me explain.

Ciao: A Short History


Ciao – Martins Krastins (creative Commons)

Although the word Ciao (pronounced CHOW), is commonly referred to as Italian, its roots are in the Venetian dialect. This dialect is rich in English words, but that’s another topic. The phrase sciao vostro, which is a Venetian dialect word, means “I am your slave”. Over time, however, the phrase was simplified to s-ciao while keeping the original meaning. YA

This history has led to Italians, even those not Venetian speaking and understanding the Venetian dialect, to know that ciao should not be used as a casual greeting. It’s an informal greeting that’s too informal for polite company. This is especially true for older generations.

This is what it means for you, the traveler. This means that you will need an alternative to ciao if you wish to greet a shopkeeper, waiter or passer-by in the street.

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Other ways to say hello/goodbye (aside from Ciao)

Unfortunately, the universal application of ciao (which can be used to say hello and goodbye) doesn’t work with any of these alternatives. It depends on the time of day for these options.

  • veh), which means a polite but not overly formal “hello.” It’s short, it’s easy to pronounce, and it doesn’t matter what time of day it is – you can greet someone with salve day or night. It’s only a greeting and not a way to say “goodbye”.
  • JOR It’s legal to say “buongiorno”, but it’s not correct to use it as a goodbye.
  • buon pomeriggio If you’re looking to make your time-of day greetings more special, grab a buon pimeriggio from the hat. It means “good afternoon”, and is used from around lunchtime to evening. eh
  • ah SEH Although it is technically a goodbye like “buongiorno”, it is more appropriate to say “buona sera” when you part.
  • arrivederci – You’ve probably heard arrivederci (pronounced ah|ree|veh|DEHR|chee) before, but this is also the informal version of a more formal greeting (and when you don’t know someone, it’s best to always default to the formal). If you are already acquainted with someone and they have used arriveerci on them, you can use it back. This does not mean “hello,” but “goodbye.”
  • ree This one, like arrivederci is a “goodbye”.

For the record, I always use salve or any buongiorno/buona se option that is appropriate for the day.

But, I heard an Italian saying ciao…


Ciao – by harmon (creative Commons)

The thing is, you will hear the Italian word ciao a lot when you travel to Italy. You’ll then wonder why I bother to make such a fuss. You’ll notice that people who use it together are often very familiar. They’re not just passing money on the street, or exchanging goods for money. A teenager from Italy will wave goodbye to her friends and give them a few cheek kisses and a ciao. But she’ll still go on to use one of these other options on an older person or stranger.

Italian is a living language. Some of it is changing. It is possible that ciao will soon be acceptable and no longer carry the “slave” connotations. However, even if this happens, Italian is still one of the languages with a formal and an informal version. It’s not a good idea to start learning the informal. Before I understood what was happening, I received more than a few unappreciative glances from Italians.

Are you going to make mistakes? Sure. We all do. If you can avoid it, saying salve instead of Ciao might get you on the Italian’s side. You may be able to receive compliments on your language skills and a big smile. They are grateful when we succeed in learning their language and they show genuine gratitude.

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42 Responses to “The History of the Word Ciao” and Why It’s Not a Good Idea to Say It in Italy”

  • Pamela Meers says:

    Your explanation of Ciao was very helpful to me as an Australian student of Italian. I’m coming to Italy in July and September with my fellow students. I will be more aware of the situations in which Ciao is used and I will also make sure to be polite when speaking to strangers.

    • Jess has the following:

      You’re welcome, Pamela! It was a pleasure to help you. As I mentioned in the article, I usually default to using “salve” most of the times.

  • wikirome says:

    We are very open-minded to tourists who misuse “ciao” incorrectly. We are well aware that it’s one of the most famous italian words.

    If they didn’t use the word with us first, it is true that we wouldn’t say “ciao!” to our dentist or to our mother-in-law. When someone responds to your “ciao”, he might be thinking, “We are not brothers, friends, who ***?”

    You could use “ciao” if there are no social barriers between you, your interlocutor, or you don’t have them. Sometimes it is used to highlight them. For example, your boss might salute you with “ciao”, but the correct answer is “buongiorno” or “arrivederci”. This is a way to say “I can speak ciao to your boss as I would with a child or servant, but you cannot do the same”.

    This is all quite bizarre when you consider the original venetian word that meant so much respect.

    Strangers will give you a “ciao” in small villages in Salento, south of Puglia. Although it is strange, it can make you feel at home and secure.

    Very nice blog! Ciao!

    • Jess has the following:

      We appreciate your comment. For foreign visitors, I believe the confusion lies in not being able to distinguish between the social layers and when it is okay to use “ciao”. While we know that there are layers, we don’t always know which ones. It’s safer to start with “salve” than the cold “buongiorno,” it seems!

      It’s fascinating to learn that Salento strangers use “ciao” quite often. It’s interesting to know if this is true in other rural areas of Italy.

      • wikirome says:

        Although I’m not certain, I believe they are more formal in all other parts of Italy.

        Salento also uses the “tu” in place of “lei” or “voi” when they first look at people and things. It is not common and is considered impolite elsewhere in Italy.

        • Jess has the following:

          It’s interesting to note that the “tu”, as a default, is also used. It’s a place I haven’t been to yet, but I’m now even more intrigued!

  • Mark says:

    Ciao vs. chow.

    Which was the first?

    How can two countries thousands of miles away come up with the exact same word that sounds and basically means the identical thing? ?

    • Jess has the following:

      The English phonetic spelling for the Italian word “chow” does not mean that the word is “chow”. It is the correct spelling.

    • will.douglas.english says:

      I thought that “chow” (in English) meant food. It’s not Hello/Goodbye…

      • Jess has the following:

        It all depends on the context. It depends on the context. I have seen people use “chow”, when they mean “ciao” in English. But, “chow” usually means food.

    • Eric Peterson:

      Ohio is a Japanese informal greeting. Or, a US State.

      These coincidences are common in many languages all over the globe.

  • Francesco

    Hehehe. Well, at least in Firenze (Florence), there are a lot of dialects. Ciao is a common language, espacially for teenagers. If i was to enter a shop, i would use salve, but if I was entering a friend’s house, i would use ciao, if he is comfortable. Although my Italian is not “high-class” and i don’t use much Jargon, I am embarrassed of it. However, if you Google “accento di un Carabiniere”, you will find the polite way to speak Italian. Anyway, nice article.

    • Jess has the following:

      We appreciate your feedback! Yes, I do say “ciao” to people I know. But I have learned to use “salve” when speaking with strangers. I liked the tip about “accento de un carabiniere”. I will have to give that a try!

  • Elisa says:

    Hello,

    Even though I am a native speaker, I would like to give you a tip. Even if it is true that buongiorno and buona sera can be used for both hello and goodbye, the sound they make is quite odd. Buona giornata or buona serata are better for goodbye.

  • Will Douglas:

    It can be even trickier. I live in Salento, Puglia. I am surrounded by friends, with whom I often use the familiar form “tu”, “te” or “ti” all the time. When you’ve exhausted yourself, or your friend(s), drive them home, we often say “buona niete” to indicate that the evening is done. It’s understood that everyone’s going back to sleep and no more carousing. It’s often combined with a “ciao” just for good measure: Buona notte!”

    Instead, if you leave your friends at the end of the evening and they decide to go on with their evening elsewhere, buona serata is perfect. Although “buona sera” is correct in this situation, I agree with you. As you go, say it to waiters at restaurants or theater staff.

    I hope this helps.

    • Jess has the following:

      Yes, it is more complex when you go beyond short-term visitors and exchanges. However, I am sure that every language is like this. Will, thank you for your input!

  • Any more language hints?

    Thanks,

    Dennis

  • Maurizio Morabito says:

    If you are certain that their evening isn’t over, you can say “buona sera” to them when you wave goodbye. This indicates that they will be doing something else after you leave.

    I also lived in Salento, and they are uncultured and rough compared to the Italian years of their unwarranted familiarity. Follow the local customs if you are a foreigner. If in doubt, go formal.

    • Jess has the following:

      Until I am taught otherwise, I agree to be formal. It’s safer to be safe than sorry (and polite). It’s better to be safe than sorry. Thank you for your comment.

  • Your explanation of the history behind the word Ciao is very interesting. However, the literal translation is “hi” and “bye.” It is easy to see why you wouldn’t use this informal phrase with someone you don’t know, like a shopkeeper or taxi driver.

    • Jess has the following:

      Thank you for your note! However, in the US, “hi” and “bye” are used regardless of whether you know anyone. So a more detailed explanation was needed.

  • Beautiful explanation. It was a great explanation. And there were many interesting conversations in the comments. We are very grateful. We are coming to Italy in October!

    • Jess has the following:

      Sheryl, thank you for your note. I also agree with the sentiments expressed in the comments. These thoughtful readers are amazing.

  • Thank you for the derivation. It was clear that Ciao was used only with close friends and family, but I didn’t know the history of the word. I have heard the expression “Buon proseguimento dilla giornata” (or “di serata”, “di vacanza”, or “di laboro ) a lot.

  • Marty says:

    Thank you for your explanations. This is a wonderful topic to discuss with anyone who visits Italy.

  • Christine Berlen says:

    Tonight I am leaving for Italy to spend a month. This page has provided me with invaluable information about how I should conduct myself. We are so grateful! !

    I will be attending the three-day San Trifone Festival in Bari. Anyone have any experience with this celebration?

  • Don says:

    We are grateful! I will be leaving in March to spend 9 days in Italy. This is very helpful.

  • will.douglas.english says:

    It all depends on the type of relationship – casual or formal. It’s not that simple. Some places, such as the South, are very familiar. It is often easy to get to know someone quickly (the first time one meets someone). Perhaps the first conversation between coevals! Some Southerners, who are more rigid or have more pronounced bourgeois roots, may take exception to this. The North is a different place, with many exceptions. It takes practice, intuition, as well as resilience for the inevitable mistakes.

    An anecdote from a British friend about a midday trip to a bar/trattoria located in a small, remote mountain town in the North will stay with me forever. He had not even acknowledged the owner of the taciturn bar when he opened his door, and it was clear that he didn’t have any special regard for foreigners. My friend, who was not even an Italian novice, but was a very nice man, welcomed him with a cheery, loud “Ciao!” Without the slightest hint or kindness, the guy stared straight into his eyes and said, “Ciao!”. As if he was asking “Who the [email protected]# are you?” ?”

    Imagine it.

    Do not be discouraged. You will be welcomed by the vast majority and they will forgive you for any mistakes. Here’s a tip. If you feel you have made a mistake, you can correct it.

    • Jess has the following:

      The look on the face of the barkeep is something I can picture. This is why I suggest that people choose the formal.

  • Sasha says:

    On a 1962 auto-stop trip, the driver of a beautiful Lancia informed us that ciao was derived through service. Thank you for confirming it and explaining! I was unsure whether or not to believe him.

  • Leonardo says:

    Never say “Salve!” Take a decision: or ciao or Buongiorno (or Buona sera).

    Ciao!

    • Jessica says:

      Multiple times, I received the exact opposite advice, especially regarding not saying “ciao.”

  • Huan says:

    CHAO is a Vietnamese word that means hello and good-bye. It can also be pronounced the same way as CIAO.

    Are you able to explain this coincidence?

    Vietnam’s history dates back to 3000 years ago.

    • Jessica says:

      Wow! It’s amazing that the words sound so similar. While I am aware of the historical connections between Vietnam and France, I do not know if there is any connection between Vietnam and Italy.