“Signorina?” I say. My wife and I are in an airport restaurant in Venice, waiting for a friend to arrive. We have an hour or so to kill. There’s no better way to do that than by eating.
I’ve ordered the pasta; my wife has the prosciutto and mozzarella. We need some bread. Well, my wife needs some bread.
She shakes her head. “You really should call her signora,” she says.
I thought I knew the difference. In the case of a girl, or a possibly unmarried young woman, you deploy the -ina. In the case of not a girl, not a young woman, marital status unknown, you lose the diminutive. But what’s young? For a year or so, at a bar in my wife’s home town, I called the young woman who made my cappuccino signorina. That seemed to work okay. She looked like she was in her mid-twenties. No one corrected me. (Maybe they were just being polite.) One Monday morning when I placed my order, she held out her left hand and announced she had become a signora. From that point on I thought: Okay, now I get it.
In American English we make the Miss/Ma’am distinction. But when we do, we make it loosely. I’ve been in restaurants before, waited on by an obviously not young woman, maybe married, maybe not, maybe married a couple times, maybe even she’s seen a few of her adult children married a couple times, and some guy needing a coffee refill lifts his cup and says, “Excuse me, miss?” And I think, You dope, she’s no miss. Okay, he’s just being respectful; just slightly off, I think, with respect to age.
Anyway I guess I’m the dope now.
I stab a couple garganelli. Go figure. At an airport restaurant they serve garganelli with a bolognese sauce. The pasta and sauce are not only not terrible; they’re actually quite good. And Parma prosciutto. And buffalo mozzarella. Wonders do not cease. On their part it’s a matter of self-respect. When they serve you pasta, they serve you pasta they could eat.
So on my part, as a matter of respect and self-respect, I want to get things right. Signora, not signorina. Please, some bread?
During a few idle moments, waiting for bread, I consult my Google and find my way to the Accademia della Crusca. Founded in 1583, with the encouragement of a guy named Cosimo de Medici, this organization paved the way for Florentine Italian becoming the dialect of choice 350 years later. In 1612 the Accademia published its first dictionary of the Italian language.
It just so happens the Accademia della Crusca publishes a linguistic Q and A column, a sort of Dear Abby for those with questions about style and usage. The signora/signorina issue requires a 1250 word disquisition. And they lay down the law: “In definitiva, nella maggior parte dei contesti nell’uso allocutivo è oggi consigliabile rivolgersi a una donna con signora e non con signorina.” So we are advised to use signora. With this proviso: “nel caso di una persona molto giovane (intorno ai 20 anni), in contesi informali la si può interpellare direttamente con il tu mentre in contesti più formali.” In informal contexts, with a young woman up to age 20 or so, informal usage is acceptable. Tu and signorina. Otherwise it’s lei and signora.
The first time I came to Italy, a few months after we got married, my wife and I and her cousin were on a train. It was an old local train, hot and crowded. I had an aisle seat. A couple nuns boarded the car we were in, came down the aisle in our direction. Thinking I would be a gentleman, I stood and, offering my seat, said to one of the nuns, “Signora?” My wife’s cousin made a face and burst out laughing. Wrong female term for a woman in that line of work. I learned a new word that day. Suora for nun.
The waitress brings the bread. She must be over 20. She is not wearing a wedding ring. The context is somewhere between informal and formal. I get it now. In Italian, if you don’t know someone, you default to more formal usage. Remember your manners. Signora, thank you for the bread.
When we leave, we’ll say arrivederla (formal, one person), not arrivederci (formal, two people), and definitely not ciao’ (that’s informal, y’all).