Ciao: What does the most famous Italian word really mean?


Ciao is the most famous Italian word. Even if it will sound strange, it entered the Italian language only in the twentieth century.

If you want to learn more about other Italian traditions and habits, go to All About Italy.

Ciao’s origin

It comes from the Venetian word s’ciao, meaning “(I am your) slave” and it implied putting oneself at the disposal of the other person. It was therefore a reverential salutation, similar to the servus in use at the Austrian Imperial court.

Nevertheless, from the 19th century it spread as informal greeting first in Lombardy, where it took the altered form. Evidence is found in the “Dictionary of the Venetian dialect” by Giuseppe Boerio (1829). There it is described as a “way to greet others with a lot of confidence.”

Its first appearance in a literary work dates back to 1874, in a Giovanni Verga’s novel entitled “Eros”: «Ciao! Alberto le fissò addosso un lungo sguardo, che valeva per lo meno quanto il ciao» (Hello! Alberto gave her a long glance, which had as much meaning as the hello”.)

Nowadays in Italy it is the most common greeting used among friends and acquaintances.

Wrong use abroad

Abroad I heard many people saying it to say goodbye, whereas In Italy it is used both when we part and when we meet.

It also happened to me (for example in Germany) that many people greeted me (and also elder people) using ciao (the waiters at the hotel or at the restaurant). It sounded very weird because in Italy we don’t say it to people we don’t know, or that we have just met, but only to persons we know very well or with whom we feel a certain bond. Therefore, a waiter shouldn’t greet people with a ciao. It’s very unpolite.

Of course, you readers of My Corner of Italy are totally authorized to say Ciao to me!

Useful examples when travelling

  • Everybody in Italy say Ciao to kids and young people.
  • When entering a shop, a hotel, a café or a restaurant, we never use Ciao, unless the staff is very, very young. We enter and say Buongiorno or Buonasera.
  • When we go out we say Arrivederci.
  • In case of elderly people: I would never say Ciao! to a person of a certain age that I do not know well. Always better Buongiorno and Buonasera.
  • In general, always keep in mind that it is an informal greeting. So, in all the situations when in contact with someone who has a “position of a certain authority“, better to avoid the ciao and use a more formal greeting. For example, if you go to the doctor, you won’t say ciao, but buongiorno. Or if you want to ask for directions to a traffic policemen, do not say ciao.

Learn more about Italian greetings!

For futher info take a look at my post Italian greetings! It also includes the correct pronuciation.

Ironic use

Sometimes it is also used ironically to emphasize the fact that something is too hard to do. Or that you do not believe the words of someone. In that case, with a sarcastic tone we say: “Sì, ciao!” (Yes, bye!) or “Va be’, ciao!” (Ok, bye!) to say “it’s impossible or unbelievable“.