That’s Not Italian: It’s Italian-American

2 Jul

It’s different.

And don’t go all pissy on me now, because I’m like Polish-Lithuanian with some sort of French-Canadian or something mixed in. Otherwise how did I end up with a last name like Ruelle and both parents from Detroit and relatives named Kaminskas? Clearly I am not qualified to argue the finer points of Sunday sauce. (Oh my God how much am I loving “so don’t skip the little shit in this tutorial and it will reward you in the end.” See!!?) But I can assure you that I’ve never, in twelve years of living in Rome and ten living with a Roman, heard the term “Sugo della domenica.” No.

{This is a hilarious post-script: I was trying to figure out who the dude was that wrote the Sunday sauce tutorial because it’s effing brilliant and funny and uses lots of swears and that’s fun. Turns out it’s Michael “Mickey” Melchiondo, Jr. a.k.a. Dean Ween, as Wiki helpfully explains “formerly one half of the alternative rock group Ween” Oh people, how I love the Internets.}

What I will say is that my ex-hubs (who is a several generations Roman) and yours truly naively thought that when we were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed tourists in NYC, we could go to the famed Little Italy, speak a bit of Italian, and be understood.

Again, let’s be clear: no. (Helpfully spelled the same in both English and Italian. Italian-American, I do not know.)

So much no, in fact, that the form of Italian “dialect” that our waiter spoke was some odd combination of an Italian dialect and American English something or other. As in, it was some sort of mutant hybrid language that was uniquely Italian-American. Incomprehensible to an “Italian from Italy.”

Italian-American culture is, as indicated by the word “culture,” its own culture. I am not an anthropologist writing an ethnography, so I have no authority to speak about this, but I simply say this to inform you that “Italians from Italy” don’t tend to identify with Italian-American culture. That culture, while having its roots in Italy, has of course grown up to be a product of its environment: a blend of Italian ancestry mixed with American culture. (Yes, we Americans do have culture. Stop it.) Hence, Italian-American.

Why am I blabbering on about this? Because one of my Italian-American friends recently brought this little gem video (linked at the end of the post) to my attention.

Now, as much as Kelly Ripa makes my skin crawl, I have to say that this video is sort of funny, because it highlights the fact that “This is not Italian that you are speaking.” And yet it’s amusing to Italians from Italy. When I told my ex and some other Italians that Americans of all walks of life say “Capeesh?” as a form of asking “Do you get it?” it was fun for them to try to determine where exactly that originated from. The concensus was that it must be from Sicily. If you’re nerdy enough you can go and Google “Etymology of Capeesh.”


I am that nerdy, so why don’t I just go ahead and do that for you?

Ha. Ha.

Big effing ha.

And you thought I was trying to be funny. No, I am not the only one who ponders these mysteries of the universe. Clearly I am not.

However, none of that, not even Oxford-The-World’s-Most-Trusted-Dictionaries was able to confirm or deny the Sicilian origin of such. They all just say “variation of Italian third person capisce.” Um—yeah. I could have told you that. Oh, hang on. Now this is going to bug me.

Ok, here’s an Italian-Palermitano dictionary. They say “capire” translates to “capìri” which gets us closer to why the accent would be pronounced as “eesh” but still, I guess the web hasn’t yet evolved to a third-person conjugation of Sicilian verbs. Sorry. Here’s where the story ends.

Now, go wild in the comments. I need schooling, as if you didn’t already realize by my Polish-Lithuanian rambling. All I could find in a cursory search on Polish-American culture is that there’s a tradition in Poland of throwing water and it’s called Dyngus. Which, if you look up the etymology of said word with its more common spelling in current US English usage a.k.a. “dingus,” (often heard on elementary schoolyards across the Heartland), you’ll find the perfect description here in the Urban Dictionary of ME, yes, Shelley: #2. And thus, we come culturally full circle. God bless America.

Just so you know: the people at Funny or Die are lame, because they’ve disabled embedding of this video which forms the foundation for my entire post. Dumb. Big fat dingus-heads.

So here’s the link to the video they won’t let me embed. Beware: it includes Kelly Ripa. That’s like fingernails on a chalkboard. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


23 Responses to “That’s Not Italian: It’s Italian-American”

  1. rosana2013 July 2, 2013 at 11:01 am #

    Love the way you write!!! You are so cleaver!!!

  2. Benjamin July 2, 2013 at 11:02 am #

    Dear Shel,
    i am sorry if this will complain you, but Rome and South of Italy is not Italy!
    Like the North of Italy is not Italy!
    Italy simply doesn’t exist at all.
    It is just a geographical area on the maps, but it is a mix of different cultures and peeps.
    That’s why the “italians” are not patriots, but they love their little towns.
    Because we are a bunch of diff peeps, joined in a State but Sicily is Sicily and Piemonte is Piemonte!
    The history of this country teach us the this people comes from competely different races and way of life.
    A sicilian won’t ever be an italian
    A Valdostain won’t ever be an italian
    And so on….
    In USA it’s really different, there an italian/american feels an italian and he is proud to be!
    But forget about to go back to his country.

    I don’t know if i gave you an idea of what i am trying to say, i hope so

  3. boocatbutterbee July 2, 2013 at 11:52 am #

    Dante’s Florentines are the Italians, is that it? All the rest of you are something else, lol?

  4. StarryDreamer July 2, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

    I went to Connecticut and my friend took me to this pizza place where she told me we had to order “mootz” on our pizza. As an Italian-Canadian, I was like “WTF is mootz?” We went back and forth with her explaining mootz and I said, “you mean mozzarella?” and she was all “that’s not how it’s pronounced” telling me that *I* was pronouncing it wrong. I was dying laughing.

  5. rozpaige July 2, 2013 at 1:40 pm #

    Yes, you are correct in your post that Italians and Italian-Americans are different and not the same, but we (Italian-Americans) do have our cultural roots tied to the ‘mother country’. Life evolves (as nature indicates) and there’s nothing to be ashamed about that fact. Italy IS a country contrary to what the commenter above stated, and is recognized as such around the world. It is sad that the different provinces of Italy have difficulty with that recognition and yet still hold on to their various different regional treasures in food, traditions, etc. It’s the same as being from Georgia or California and embracing those individual state differences, yet understanding that as a whole entity, the USA is a nation, a country. The one thing that I will say about Italy is that there is such a vast difference between the North and the South that it amazes me that there has not been a split between the two regions yet. I understand from my readings that there are groups in Venice that are attempting to separate itself from the rest of Italy.

    Interesting post!

  6. Giuliana July 2, 2013 at 2:13 pm #

    Capeesh is the shortened, modified version of capisci. Capisci is translated as “Do you understand?” or the imperative verb “Understand?”. That’s it, it’s really that simple. Not sure why a native Roman would suggest that it’s derived from some regional dialect. Capeesh is derived because usually Americans love to abbreviate and shorten everything. There is a distinct difference between Italians and Italian-Americans. This is mostly noted in the language and pronounciations of words. This is what really chaps me. Gabagool for capicolla, rigot for ricotta or brooshetta for bruschetta! I concur with the commentator about Italian regionalists. While Italy is a soverign nation, many Italians stick to their provinces, and it becomes and “us” vs. “you”, instead of a “we.” This regionalism is why I believe Italian-Americans have the whole mispronounciation issue with words they think they’re pronouncing correctly. When Italian immigrants came to the US, 99% of them spoke their dialect, and this is what they taught their children. The result is Italian-Americans who can’t speak Italian at all and when they do visit the motherland, they sound ridiculous b/c unless they’re in their family’s town, no one will understand them. I’m grateful my parents taught us Italian and not our dialect. While I believe any dialect is important and a part of the regional culture, one needs to be able to communicate with ALL Italians. Very compelling post.

  7. Andrea Troiani July 2, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    Well…. you’re right.
    I’m not roman (but I am), I’m not italian (but I am) I’m not europian (but I am). I am a world citizen.
    So please, don’t make all the grass a beam. (non fare di tutta l’erba un fascio)

  8. July 2, 2013 at 3:53 pm #

    Shelley, I back you up 100% on this one. In fact, I briefly mentioned this topic on my own blog post yesterday. I’m Italian-American myself, and I was also a little surprised the first time I came to Italy and nobody “capished” me. However, after a short while, I began to appreciate the two separate cultures for what they are. Some of the previous commentators’ words were a bit strong–no surprise, they’re obviously “Italian,” despite their objections to the word. But they make a good point: many Italians don’t feel “Italian,” so why do Italian-Americans feel so Italian?

    Finally, I think Oscar Wilde best put it into perspective. (He was speaking of the Irish, of course, so I’ll paraphrase, but it’s no less accurate.) Italian-Americans have about as much in common with Italians as African-Americans have with Africans. That’s probably even more true now than it was in Wilde’s day.

  9. JoAnn July 2, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

    Enjoyable post and interesting comments! I agree with Giuliana as to origin of the word “capeesh.” Giuliana you truly were lucky that your parents knew Italian and taught it to you. As you mentioned, most Italian-Americans were only exposed to an Italian dialect. My family came from a small village in Calabria and spoke dialect 100%. Italian? Who knew Italian?

  10. mcosdon July 2, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

    Love the accompanying video, which I hadn’t seen in some years! Do you know Ween? Mickey and I grew up together. When he was in 8th and 9th grade he used to do sound for my band. Ween started-up right around that time too.


  11. D78 July 3, 2013 at 6:59 am #

    I have found A LOT of words used in Italian-American derive from regional pronunciations from the Campania or the province of Cosenza (not to mention Sicily). The cutting off vowels at the end of words is very Cosentino, at least when they speak “stretto”. pomodoro—pomodor’, mozzarella–muzzarel’, and so on. Of course, these words too get butchered….or “evolve” as the generations of Ital-Americans continue to use them. Something, though, I find more interesting is the food culture. Like Sunday ‘gravy’, which I have, growing up in an Italian-Am family have never heard of until I met some people from NJ at University. lol. Or the notion that spaghetti and meatballs is an Italian national dish. hehe.

  12. Filottete Manfredi July 4, 2013 at 3:23 am #

    Mamma mia….sono talmente mafiosi in questo video che non sapevo se ridere della loro stupidità o sparargli. 😉

  13. Filottete Manfredi July 4, 2013 at 3:24 am #

    Mamma mia….sono talmente mafiosi in questo video che non sapevo se ridere della loro stupidità o sparargli. (Emanuele C.)

  14. Benjamin July 5, 2013 at 8:37 am #

    I see nobody understood what i was trying to saying.
    Forget about it

  15. Benjamin July 5, 2013 at 8:43 am #

    Anyway i don’t understand why people associate the world “Italian-americans” with the word “people-from-South-of-Italy”
    I am italian-american and i am not from South, and there are a lot of peeps like me coming from North of Italy and they are leaving in US.
    Can someone teach me why?

    PS Spaghetti and meatballs, Fettuccine Alfredo and the pizza like in US is use to eat, are not genuine italian food! But i know you already know that

  16. July 5, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    Benjamin, I think that everybody understood you perfectly. We’ve all heard of campanilismo and we know what it means. But you are obviously a first generation emigrant, and this discussion has been about the grandchildren of the Great Emigration, roughly from 1880-1920 when about 90% of them came from the south (Campania, Calabria, Sicily). So even the few who came from the north probably became “southernized” once they arrived in the US, Canada, Argentina, etc. in order to fit into the immigrant community.

    Finally, as a foreigner looking from the outside, it strikes me that the attitude of “Italy doesn’t exist” is one the biggest–if not THE biggest–obstacle keeping the country in a state of economic stagnation. Which is too bad, because Italy has so much unrealized potential if only everyone could all pull together.

  17. Gil July 5, 2013 at 8:44 pm #

    This whole thing is too intellectual for me to start commenting on. I do know that my four grandparents came to new York City via Ellis Island as children. My father’s parents from the Naples and Salerno areas and my mother’s parents from the Agrigento area of Sicily. They spoke their parent’s dialects and when they started to learn some English the English words got mixed in.

    As far as your last name – It wouldn’t be French-Canadian would it???

  18. Shelley July 12, 2013 at 7:25 pm #

    See that’s what I don’t really know. It sounds French, and my parents are from Detroit, so I deduced that by proximity. One time travelling up north near Biella we passed a town called Ruelle. That was good times. I got out and took a picture by the sign. My relatives in the States cried foul and said it was Photoshopped. Oh ye of little faith… in the digital age. What can you do?

  19. Gil July 12, 2013 at 7:39 pm #

    You have to be right. If they didn’t use that name in Italy, the immigration people might have given it to them. There are many stories about immigration officials messing up names. There is a family living near me by the name of Vasington. When going through Ellis Island the immigrant was telling the official that he was headed to Washington when he was asked for his name. This is how the story goes.

  20. emanuele c. July 12, 2013 at 10:06 pm #

    Questa di Vasington mi mancava, troppo bella.

  21. OSPITE July 29, 2013 at 1:03 am #

    Here’s my ‘due centesimi:

    that’s the Pugliese version of ha capito?

    Presente in 4 comuni ( Toscana, Liguria, Lombardia)

  22. Madge Merman December 29, 2015 at 7:49 pm #

    While many call themselves “Italian-American”, they are really totally American if born here and as time as moved on since the days of the large immigrant waves of mostly poor Southern Italians from Campania, Puglia, Calabria and Sicily. Subsequent American-born generations after the first-born generation here in America are more likely to have married other white, non-Italian groups. Creating what we now know of as the “Caucasian American”, a mixture of Irish, German, Polish, Greek, Italian, Hungarian, etc. The next generation is even more diverse and may have married Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, etc. That is the world we live in today. Italian-Americans do not speak Italian and the children of the original immigrants spoke the local dialects where their parents were born. The only thing that really remains a constant and identifies them as ethnic is the culture of food. Holidays always contain a table over flowing with high quality antipasti and salted, cured meats, world-class and rich Italian pastries, pastas, homemade sauces with recipes passed down from generation to generation….nothing but the best ! Any wonder the world finds Italian cuisine so delicious and a fine Italian restaurant;(often,several) can be found in almost every major city around the world today ?


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