Meaning and history of the Italian word Ciao

One of the most well known Italian greetings throughout the world is the informal greeting known as "Ciao."

It is known for being used as either "hello" or "goodbye" between family members, friends, and those amongst the same peer group.

Although Ciao is seen as an Italian greeting, it has only been to a part of the Italian vocabulary since the 20th century.

The Origins of Ciao

According to La Gazzetta Italiana, "The word ciao, in fact, derives from the Venetian dialectal word s'ciàvo (slave or servant)". Originally, this term represented a servant's common way to salute and show respect to his master. By pronouncing s'ciàvo, or more specifically s'ciàvo vostro, he meant "I am your slave" or, in a less degrading meaning, "I am your servant." 

It was not until the late 19th century that the greeting began spreading throughout northern Italy. It went from 's'ciavo' to ciao, this led it to shed its demeaning background. Ciao is now used as a standard greeting between close ones regardless of their class or gender.

Ciao in Popular Culture

The first usage of "ciao" in popular culture was seen in the Italian novel, titled "Eros," published in 1874 by Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga. “In chapter 20 of the book, it emerges in the opening line of a conversation as a young lady greets the main protagonist, Alberto, cheerful, "Ciao!" according to La Gazzetta Italiana.

During World War II, ciao was used in the song “Bella Ciao.: The lyrics of the song:“Una mattina mi sono svegliato, o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao! Una mattina mi sono svegliato/e ho trovato l’invasor.” It is now known as an anti-fascist anthem throughout the world. Has been sung amongst anti-Brexit protestors in England to Pro-Catalan protestors in Spain.

The international usage of Ciao

Ernest Hemmingway used ciao in his 1929 book, Farewell to Arms that took place in Italy. A quote from the book, "Ciaou!' he said. 'What kind of time did you have?" Hemmingway's usage of the greeting led it to be apart of the English vocabulary.

Others suggest that it was the immigration waves during the World War I and World War II that led to Ciao being used amongst English and non-English speakers. But regardless of how this Italian greeting has become popular with the international world, tourists, locals, and expatriates can find themselves saying using this friendly greeting amongst their friends and family.