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How to say hello in Italian! Posted by on May 10, 2013 in Italian Language

Ciao! is probably one the best known Italian words in the world. It’s an informal greeting which can be used at any time of the day and is also used to say goodbye. Just out of curiosity let’s have a quick look at the etymology of the word: ciao comes from the Venetian dialect word sciao, which in turns derives from sciavo, an abbreviation of sono vostro schiavo (lit. I am your slave!).

However, notice that I say that ciao is an informal greeting. This means that you need to be careful not to use ciao in formal situations. Let’s say that ciao is more or less equivalent to the English ‘hi’, or ‘bye’. When I was growing up in England in the 60’s and 70’s it was considered rude to say ‘hi’ to a stranger or someone you had just been introduced to, and in fact when I go back to England for a holiday I still feel a bit offended if I go into a shop (or even a bank!) and the young employee greets me, a complete stranger, with the word hi!, or even worse hiya!

Italian culture makes pretty clear distinctions between formal and informal situations, not just in terms of social etiquette but also in the grammatical structure of the language used, and personally I hope this doesn’t gradually disappear, as has mostly happened in England, although sadly in some of the big chain stores here in Italy (I remember entering a well know international DVD rental store in Lucca and being greeted with ciao! … yuk!) it seems to have already become the norm to greet complete strangers as if they’re your best friend!

But you dear reader are not to pick up these horrible habits!

So … when do you use ciao? You use ciao with friends, close relatives, children, and, if you like, animals.

And how do you say hello in formal situations? One of the most common formal Italian greetings is ‘salve’, and for some strange reason it rarely gets taught in Italian language classes or books.

Salve comes from the Latin verb salvere (lit. to be well, to be in good health), which is related to the Italian noun salute (health). It can be used in a friendly informal way, similar to ciao, e.g. Salve! Come va? (lit. Hi! How’s it going?), but it’s usually used as a polite form of salutation without being too formal, in fact the word salutation itself comes from the same Latin root as salute.

You can also use buongiorno (good day) and buonasera (good afternoon/evening) to greet strangers or people whom you normally address in a more formal way, such as doctors, lawyers, and so on.

If you are introduced to someone new, or they introduce themselves to you, then use the word piacere (pleasure, pleased to meet you).


Okay, now for a few practical examples:

I meet my friend Claudio in the piazza and I greet him with: ciao bello, come stai? (hi handsome, how are you? don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal for grown men to greet each other in this way!)

Then I bump into my doctor, Dottor Arrighi, and I say: buongiorno dottore, come sta? (good day doctor, how are you?)

Dottor Arrighi introduces me to his wife, whom I’ve never met before, so I say: piacere (pleased to meet you)

…and his six year old nephew to whom I say: ciao! (hi!)

Here are a couple of colloquial greeting:

Chi si vede! (look who’s turned up/look who’s here. lit. who does one see)

…and if someone happens to appear when you’re talking about them you can say lupus in fabula (speak of the devil. lit. wolf in the fairy tale)

As a rule of thumb however, play it safe and stick with salve, buongiorno, or buonasera unless you know that you’re on ciao terms with someone.

Ciao Ciao

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  1. peter2108:

    Very nice.

  2. Ross Cranwell:

    I love etymologies..thanks for this, Geoff

  3. Hello in Italian:

    You can also add this useful one 😉
    Buon pomeriggio = Good afternoon

    • Geoff:

      @Hello in Italian Buon pomeriggio is never used in normal conversation, although you may hear TV or Radio presenters using it during an afternoon program.

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