Sunday, May 20

Caveat Emptor - not for Italians

For many people living abroad, swapping words and their rich histories are a fun part of learning through exchanging...In fact, Come si dice? is one of the first phrases people learn when studying Italian...but, for inquisitive minds, it becomes an oft-occuring conversation piece.  Every once in awhile, you find you've stumped someone with English...but I always get a kick when I stump them with my 'Italian'.
English uses phrases from many other roots than Latin, and sometimes these in turn are appropriated by the Italian language (warning: this practice is not for the French: they make sure they come up with their own words for everything).  So, I had no problem throwing out, however, a phrase that I have known to live by:  Caveat Emptor.  It's a phrase that anyone who lives in Italy or purchases electronics on 42nd Street in NYC will come to know.  Not putting it into practice comes with it's own risks for consumers.
But, I was stunned by the raised eyebrows and puzzled looks in the all-Italian room.  They had never heard the expression before.  
Really? And I have been using it for years...thinking everyone knew what I was on about.  Instead, I chirped, "Well, it's Latin!".  One of the Latin students in the room defiantly shook his head, "No. It's not."
Vignette from my book, Burnt by the Tuscan Sun
by Gianni Falcone, cartoonist - www.gianfalco.com
Now it was my turn for puzzled looks.  If it means Beware, he continued...then it'd be Cave Emptor, much in the same way as Cave Canem means Beware of the Dog.  Still trying to figure out what happened when the phrase went from Latin to English...I looked it up.
The Encyclopedia Brittanica calls it New Latin: the phrase originating in Anglo common law back in 1523.  Slightly later than Cicero by my calculations.
And, it has to do with no warranties, which have since been put into place but in print so fine that they are worthless, or, with so many tricks "Send us the last four digits of the Pope's Social Security number combined with a boxtop from a box of Cheerios purchased in 1982."
Of course, when it comes to returns and exchanges (and I have a whole chapter in my book on this), we can always do it the Italian way:  Just don't offer them.  Keeps things fairly clear.  Go with the personal relationship instead (basically, you'll get further if you frequent my business -- often)...
Come to think of it, it's no wonder that modern-day Italians never had heard of this most modern of Warning Labels.  Forewarned is forearmed.  Now there's an expression for you!

2 comments:

Prof C said...

It is Latin, it's just a different verb "mood:" "cave canem" is a command for the listener / reader to be aware OF THE dog, whereas "caveat emptor" is the subjunctive and emptor is the subject, not the object:

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/caveat_emptor

So tell your friend to brush up on his liceo classico exams!

Francesca Maggi said...

I knew someone would be all over that! But, I still find it funny that it is not an expression commonly used in Italy...