Spring flowers are much more part of gardens in America and England than in the evergreen Italianate gardens of Tuscany. But now is the time to tour the Bardini Garden of Florence to see the wisteria. It is surely petaloso. Or can we describe it that way? Is petaloso even a word?
Early this February, in the small town of Copparo in central Italy, a primary school teacher, Margherita Aurora, was in a bind when one of her students, eight-year-old Matteo, used a made-up word in a written assignment.
Matteo described a flower as “petaloso” (“full of petals”). The word doesn’t exist in the Italian dictionary, but grammatically it makes sense as a combination of “petalo” (“petal”) and the suffix “-oso” (“full of”).
Ms. Aurora marked the error by writing, “1 errore bello.” (“1 beautiful error”) But as only the best teachers do, she went a step further. She asked her class, “Did Matteo invent a new word? How are words created?”
With his teacher’s help, the students wrote to the Accademia della Crusca—the institution that oversees the use of the Italian language—to ask for their opinion.
To their surprise, Matteo got a supportive reply. “The word you invented is well formed and could be used in the Italian language,” one of the Crusca’s linguistic experts wrote. “It is beautiful and clear.”
But, the linguist added, for a word to officially be part of the Italian language, a large number of people need to use it and understand its meaning. “If you manage to spread your word among many people who start saying ‘What a petaloso flower this is!’, then petaloso will have become a word in Italian.”
Matteo’s teacher was thrilled by the reply. She wrote,”This is worth more than a thousand Italian lessons” on her Facebook page and shared pictures of the letter.
Her original Facebook post has been shared more than 98,000 times. On Twitter #petaloso trended like crazy. Many tweeters used the word in context—demonstrating its wide use and commonly understood meaning, just as Accademia della Crusca had suggested. Italian companies joined the campaign, chefs created petaloso recipes, garden associations supported the idea, designers used it to advertise products, Italy’s prime minister joined the conversation on social media, the the story was reported throughout Europe, and even in the U.S. on NPR.
Life Stranger Than Fiction?
The original American title is Frindle. The story is about an American schoolboy, Nick Allen, who likes to liven things up at school. When Nick learns some interesting information about how words are created, he’s got the inspiration for his best plan ever…the frindle. Who says a pen has to be called a pen? Why not call it a frindle? Things begin innocently enough as Nick gets his friends to use the new word. Then other people in town start saying frindle. Soon the school is in an uproar, and Nick has become a local hero. His teacher wants Nick to put an end to all this nonsense, but the funny thing is frindle doesn’t belong to Nick anymore. The new word is spreading across the country, and there’s nothing Nick can do to stop it.
The reason the folks at Crusca learned about Frindle/Drilla was because a few years ago I gave the young son of an employee of the Accademia a copy of the Italian translation of this book that I had so enjoyed.
Maria Cristina Torchia at Crusca suggested that Matteo read the book with his teacher and his classmates. “[R]acconta proprio una storia come la tua, la storia di un bambino che inventa una parola e cerca di farla entrare nel vocabolario.” (“It tells a story just like yours, the story of a child who invents a word and tries to enter it in the dictionary.”) As petaloso started to trend in Italy, so did Drilla. The Italian publisher wrote to Crusca to thank them for the reference.
I hope that someday I’ll be able to report that petoloso has been officially added to the Italian lexicon.