Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Bimbo by Any Other Name

By Patricia Winton

Today on Novel Adventurers, I write about children’s games in Italy, including one called Bimbo. In English that word carries a pejorative connotation—a sexy, female airhead—but in Italian, it’s a word wrapped with parental love.

Bimbo is the diminutive of bambino, a male child—from birth to around puberty. The feminine version is bambina, or bimba. It’s not unusual to hear a father call out, “Bimbe (plural), venite qua,” (girls, come here). The use of bimbo or its feminine or plural forms suggests affection, in the same way that my grandfather called me Patty while others said Patricia.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records the first usage of bimbo in English in 1919; at that time it meant a man who wasn't very smart. And in the 1930s, cartoon character Betty Boopwho in today’s English could be called a bimbohad a boyfriend named Bimbo, sorely lacking in intelligence.

The word bimbo, meaning woman, first appears in the 1929 version of the OED, citing an article in a scholarly journal; it didn’t have a negative meaning then. But two 1929 films moved the word bimbo towards it current English meaning. In the first, a silent film called Desert Nights, a sexy, wealthy female thief was called a bimbo. But the more celebrated, The Broadway Melody (the first “talkie” to win an Oscar), probably holds the honor as the chief vehicle for transporting the meaning to a sexy, dumb woman. In the film, an angry character calls a chorus girl a bimbo.

There’s a shop near my home called Bimbo Point. It makes me smile every day as I pass because the juxtaposition of the two languages could lead to confusion. Italians understand that the shop sells children’s clothing, but what do English speakers who don’t know Italian think? Another shop nearby, Io Bimbo (Me, Baby), also deals in children’s items.

A recent item in the Los Angeles Times seemed to be mixing languages. The headline read, “Ready for post-bimbo era in Italy.” Now, Italy has the lowest birthrate in Europe, but to begin an era with no babies is unthinkable! The article actually addressed moving beyond former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s days in power. It examined his sexual exploits and the way he uses scantily-clad young women on his television stations.

Berlusconi created the first privately owned television station in Italy. One of its earliest shows, still running, parodies the news of the day with young women wearing few clothes prancing on stage to hand sheets of paper with news items to the hosts. These bits of paper are called veline, named for the onionskin paper that Benito Mussolini's censors sent to editors throughout Italy with their acceptable slant on the news.

The young women themselves came to be called veline, and they now appear on a wide variety of television programs, even in the pre-dinner hour. They also grace television commercials for anything from exercise equipment to yoghurt. In many ways the veline in Italian are the bimbos in English.

The drawing of the velina comes from Dianne Hales at  Becoming Italian Word by Word

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