"Cafone" to whom? History, etymology and fake news

by Francesco Li Volti

Of course there is only death, it is true, but it is equally true to affirm that the term peasant comes from the southern dialects, from that Southern Italy that has given to posterity the famous "Calm down Campani”, The first document written in the vernacular. But returning to us, this word was extended to the rest of Italy only after the Unification and its original meaning was that of "farmer".

A page from the 1933 novel is proof of this Fontamara by Ignazio Silone, set in the Abruzzese Marsica, where the social pyramid is described that sees the peasants, or peasants, at the very last step. The rooting of the word peasant in the dialects of the South it is proven, among other things, by some everyday expressions such as, as regards Campania, there is the famous peasant bread.

Be that as it may, the semantic passage of peasant from peasant to "very zotic and rude person" is documented starting from the eighteenth century in Neapolitan and Sicilian. Its origin, however, is still at the center of various debates and, at times, various (and sometimes imaginative) etymologies have been proposed, which it will be necessary to critically examine in such a way as to finally identify the most probable one.

"Cafone" to whom? History, etymology and fake news
A peasant farmer from Padula

Fake news: from ropes to Greek origin

The peasants with the rope

It is impossible not to start our discussion from the most widespread story, the most romantic one, but also the least truthful one. Cafone would indicate "Those with the rope" (it should be noted that, according to this explanation, the original form should be the masculine plural cafùne).

In defense of this theory is the belief that when in 1400 the inhabitants of the mountain villages of the adjacent areas arrived in the municipalities of Frosinone or the Campania Plain, they were either tied together so as not to get lost, or they carried ropes rolled around their shoulders or waist, to buy livestock at the fairs. They would have been identified by local citizens as those co '' by rope.

The peasant and the removals

There was a time when, when the noble Neapolitan families had to move, they called "chill co '' by rope", Or the moving company. In ancient times there were no elevators, compensators or aerial platforms: the movers used ropes and ropes to move the furniture of an apartment, then always "ca 'rope”(With the rope) they secured everything to the wagons. Tradition would have it that these workers did not enjoy particular education and, therefore, "chill ca 'fune"Would then turn into"chill cafune"And in current Italian" those peasants ".

Greek origins

But the word peasant could be so fascinating and evocative, as often happens with the etymologies, so to speak, "exotic", which almost seem to give an ancient nobility to the words of our language or our dialect, to find some rather questionable roots even in ancient Greece.

Kακόφωνος "One who speaks badly", and σκαφεύς "Digger", are two extremely rare terms and that is why the probability of a loan from neighboring Greece would seem quite unlikely.

The centurion and the horse

Another thesis circulating in the world of the web sees a derivation from Latin as more likely cabōnem "Castrated horse" or from the name of a Roman centurion named Cafo. In reality the first hypothesis was proposed by Giacomo Devoto which, in his Introduction to Italian etymology, considered peasant an “Oscan dialectal form corresponding to Latin cabo, -ōnis "Castrated horse". Although it was formulated by a linguist of the caliber of Devoto, this theory has never found the consensus of scholars, indeed it must be said that it leaves many doubts, starting with the fact that the semantic transition from "castrated horse" to "peasant" it's not that straightforward.

As for the second, Latin Cafo, (name of a centurion follower of Marco Antonio and gratified by him with lands in the Campania countryside) would seem only a mere coincidence. As if that weren't enough, this hypothesis is not even supported by a satisfactory semantic explanation: even assuming that the centurion's name had become synonymous with “rough, boorish”, this meaning is, to all intents and purposes, chronologically later.

The peasant: the discovery

It was the beginning of the twentieth century when the glottologist Carlo Salvioni identified a fully satisfactory etymology from the historical, semantic and phonetic point of view. The academician, defender of the Italianness of Italian Switzerland, recognized in the southern Italian term peasant a derivative of the Latin get out (digging), or "turning the earth upside down", with the addition of the suffix -one (which usually indicates a habit or an excess in doing the action expressed by the verb, as in chatterbox, trickster, glutton, grind).

According to Salvioni, peasant would mean "he who digs, who hoes the earth ”, that is to say 'farmer'. For phonetics, the passage of -v- to -f- is actually a frequent phenomenon in southern Italy, right there where the term had its origin.


Giacomo Devoto, Introduction to Italian etymology, Florence, Le Monnier, 1966

Alfredo Panzini, Modern dictionary of words not found in common dictionaries, with a preface by Alfredo Schiaffini and with an appendix of eight thousand entries again compiled by Bruno Migliorini, Milan, Hoepli, 1959

Alberto Zamboni, review by Manlio Cortelazzo-Paolo Zolli, Etymological Dictionary of the Italian language, vol. I (AC), Bologna, Zanichelli, 1979


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Carlo Vurachi 9 December 2021 - 11:48

Why do you define FAKE NEWS as those that in Italian are FALSE ETYMOLOGIES or PARETYMOLOGIES?

Francesco Li Volti 9 December 2021 - 11:51

Greetings! Great question! Because these false paretymologies and etymologies are told by word of mouth and become fake news when they are spread on the web or other media!

Carlo Vurachi 9 December 2021 - 13:12

Dear Francesco, even when they are spread by word of mouth they remain false etymologies. FAKE NEWS are simply FAKE NEWS translated into English for no reason. If you think about it, you will see that in the face of the abuse of useless English words it is much more original to resort to the Italian words that we have always used. With sympathy.

Carlo Vurachi 9 December 2021 - 13:12

Dear Francesco, even when they are spread by word of mouth they remain false etymologies. FAKE NEWS are simply FAKE NEWS translated into English for no reason. If you think about it, you will see that in the face of the abuse of useless English words it is much more original to resort to the Italian words that we have always used. With sympathy.

Francesco Li Volti 9 December 2021 - 13:18

Perhaps I have not explained myself well, I would like to report to Treccani: to designate information that is partially or completely not corresponding to the truth, disclosed intentionally or unintentionally through the Web, media or digital communication technologies, and characterized by an apparent plausibility , the latter fed by a distorted system of public opinion expectations and by an amplification of the prejudices underlying it, which facilitates sharing and dissemination even in the absence of verification of the sources. Corresponding roughly to the Italian media hoax - although the latter expression generally refers to news that is completely devoid of truthfulness - and used mainly in the political sphere.

As I had previously indicated to you, it is not the false story that is fake news, but its diffusion through the media that makes it become such. But still that doesn't mean anything to my personal writing tastes.

Carlo Vurachi 9 December 2021 - 14:35

No need to bother Threedogs, clearly we don't have the same taste!


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