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English, Italian Style

When I first traveled to Italy, nearly 50 years ago, I don’t recall seeing much public display of English, other than neon signs in Milan’s main square bearing the names of brands like Coca-Cola and Schweppes, and a few familiar phrases in shop windows, such as “Snack Bar” and “Self-service.” I’ve been lucky enough to return to that beautiful country many times since, and I don’t believe there was any change on the this score till the late ’80s, when there appeared T-shirts and sweatshirts bearing nonsensical English messages, along the lines of “First-Rate Malibu Varsity All-American” or “Lacrosse Squad Memories.”

(I have not been to the Far East, but this sort of thing has apparently taken off there, for example:

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Many more examples can be found on the website Engrish.com.)

Then, about 15 years ago, I started to notice the use of English words and phrases in product and company names, marketing, and advertising. It was just a little bit at first, but there seemed to be more on every visit. I’ve just returned from 10 days in Italy, and can report that the public space is overwhelmed with discrete English words and phrases. And note that for the most part, I wasn’t in heavily touristy areas, but in small cities like Modena, Verona, and Ravenna. Over the course of a day or so, I wrote down all the examples I encountered — on the sides of trucks, on billboards, in store windows, on products, or in the names on buildings, shops, or restaurants. The most common form was a two-word phrase, often with no space in between. Here are just a few examples from my notebook:

DreamCafé; Car Clinic; RealtyLab; Born to Challenge; #StartBreathing; Optimum Solutions; AutoGrill (this is the ubiquitous highway rest stop, which offers far better food than most United States restaurants); eco friendly; Shopping World; Doctor Glass; Drylock Technologies; Rent Today; The Space (a cinema); MyChef; Italy Lines — International Transports Logistics (this was on the side of a truck); Show Room; We Know the Greenway (another truck); Espresso to Go — Shake It!; A Good Italian Pizza; Bloom — Gelato Smart Essence; Fashion Attitude; SexyShops; Keep Discovering — Never Settle.

I took some pictures, too.

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This play on the “Keep Calm and … ” slogan shows a sophistication in English.

 

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“Take away” has probably been around long enough to be universally understood in Europe and beyond.

 

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A striking mashup of English and Italian.

 

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English’s incursion into Italy goes beyond the written word. Sitting in a cab one day, I heard the pop music interrupted by an accented voice saying, “Rahhdio Peter Pan. Forever fun. Forever young.” Then one night on TV, there was a commercial featuring Bruce Willis cavorting on a beach. The tag line was, “Vodaphone Social Summer. Power to Bruce. Power to you.”

And the explanation for the Anglicization of Italian commerce? It would not appear to be an effective means of communicating with Italians, since only 34 percent of them say they speak English “well enough to hold a conversation” — far less than a country like the Netherlands, where the figure is 90 percent. Rather, in the halls of Italian marketing, a consensus seems to have grown that the use of English words and phrases is a good way to express certain qualities. From my observations, I would say those qualities are: a certain mass-marketed slickness, a certain level of quality (but not too high — there was almost no English in the windows of the most expensive shops), hipness, novelty, fun, and youth.

If I am right, then the sweet spot, no pun intended, for English would probably be the bill of fare for prepackaged ice-cream products. And what do you know? It was.

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