Tuesday, August 19, 2008


My memory, as I may have told you, may have told you repeatedly, in fact, is a bit fickle. It often works really well (allowing me to correctly answer trivia questions about Joe Namath and RNA transcription). But shine the spotlight on it and it's just as often likely to belch out the wrong answer. I have born false witness to the questions "How old are you?" "How long have you been married?" "What neighborhood do you live in?" and "Who told you that?" repeatedly because of this no-good, double-crossing memory of mine. Additionally, words of approximately the same length and/or consonant:vowel ratio (Fullerton and Lawrence, for example), names of people who have the same build or facial hair, and names starting with the same letter (a la those alliterative Bev, Bill, Brian, Barbara, & Brady families) become very confused in my head. This is why I frequently look and/or am lost.

All this to say, it was no surprise that pronto and presto have given me trouble from the moment I stepped foot in this Italian-speaking land. It was hard indeed to start answering the phone "pronto!" Not only is this a weird greeting (pronto means "ready"), I am also usually struck by the very strong urge to say "presto!" ("soon") instead. 

So wait. Are you also having trouble wrapping your mind around these usages? Check your passport, I bet you're American. Check out this illustrative snacking scenario:

American version: Bring that salt over here pronto! Put it on your tomato and – presto! – a tasty snack!

Italian version (in English): Is that tasty tomato snack pronto yet? I have to leave presto.

You see? It is not me, it is the weird English language which has begged, borrowed, and stolen itself.  Presto was first borrowed into the English language by magicians whose tricks happened "right away" and has become the rough equivalent of "ta-dah!"  Pronto comes to the English from the Italian/Spanish definition of pronto which also means "right away."  So it is not just my memory but the entire English language conspiring against me. [End personal validation supported by amateur linguistics]

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