Etymology Can Be (Not) Fun!

In order to find some people to hang out with, I used to partecipate in the buddy program for exchange students within my university. I mostly helped out in teaching Italian language and culture, in order to smooth out their experience, and in exchange hey usually taught me their language and invited me over to their apartments or parties.

One time, I was paired with an exchange student from Philadelphia. He was fairly smart, very willing to learn, but with some… interesting gaps of knowledge.

Of note was when he once asked me some tips on what to visit in Rome, as I had been there several times with family (and for family) in the past, and he was planning to have a day trip there. Aside from the classic questions of “best place to eat” and “most reccomendable places to visit”, he started asking a few things about the layout, and one of those questions was “Is the Jewish Ghetto still dangerous? Or has it been cleaned up and can stroll through it safely?”

In the moment, I was very confused, and asked him to repeat himself, at which point he asked again, at which point I said “how could it be? It’s the safest, and arguably prettiest, neighbourhood ever since the Eighties’ attack, how could it be?”, and he reacted as if I had spat on his face before nodding and refusing to speak to me for a few days.

It took me an embarassingly long time to realize he thought that “Jewish Ghetto” was meant to be a judgment on its quality, in the more colloquial sense in English, rather than the actual descriptor it has in Italian (where, if used an adjective, has a narrower meaning). To this day, I’m not quite sure if he also understood my confusion, but it definitely made for a learning experience for the both of us!


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