Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Maybe it’s because I make my living by putting certain words in a certain order for a certain purpose, but it always bothers me when people confuse terms that I don’t think are all that confusing. We see this all the time with there, their and they’re, for example. These homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings) can be a challenge for some people, particularly when the words are spoken more often than they are written.

And I suppose the situation is further exacerbated when you start borrowing terms from other languages, as would be the case with chow and ciao. They are both pronounced exactly the same way, but they cannot be used interchangeably.

The word chow can take on a few different meanings.

  1. It can a synonym for food:
    Happy Brian’s Restaurant has some great chow.
  2. It can be a verb related to eating:
    Stephen is really chowing down on those noodles.
  3. It can be short for the Chow Chow breed of dog:
    My friend has a pet Chow.
  4. It can be someone’s name:
    John Chow is the root of all evil.

The word ciao, on the other hand, is an entirely different term.

If you are in Italy, you’ll find that “ciao” is an informal greeting that can be used either to mean “hello” or “goodbye.” In North America, we’re more likely to use “ciao” in place of “bye” rather than in place of “hello,” but it is used equally for both purposes in Italy. Despite popular belief, “ciao” is not technically an Italian term. Instead, it originates from the Venetian language. We have to remember that what we consider modern day Italy wasn’t always unified as a single nation.

Upon further research, it seems that “ciao” was derived from the phrase “s-ciào vostro” in Venetian (schiavo vostro in Italian), which literally translates as “I am your slave.” It’s important that this wasn’t meant to be taken literally. It was more of a gracious extension of good will, like “at your service” in English.

Now that you understand the difference between these two terms, please don’t use one when you really mean the other. I’m going to grab some chow now, so until next time… ciao!