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CIAO – Meaning in Italian and When You Can Use It

Who doesn’t love listening to the Italian language? One of the Italian words you’ll hear the most is ciao. What exactly is the meaning of ciao in Italian, and where does the word come from? Can anyone say it? And are there alternatives?

Let’s dig in and answer those questions about ciao.

How To Pronounce Ciao

Ciao is pronounced CHOW.

Listen to the pronunciation here:

History of the Italian Word Ciao

Boy standing in Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy, and looking back at the basilica.

Even today, where (almost) everyone in Italy speaks Italian, the use of regional dialect is still very widespread.

The Italian greeting ciao comes from an ancient greeting in Venetian dialect –  s’ciavo, literally ‘slave’ (implying ‘I’m your slave’). A more recognizable version today might be ‘Your humble servant’.

It originated from the Latin sclavus and it was used to show respect.

Interestingly the word is also linked to the ‘Slav’ people from central and eastern Europe. Many of the ‘Slavs’ were captured and enslaved in wars, and this led to it becoming synonymous with ‘enslaved person’.

From s’ciavo (the modern Italian equivalent is schiavo) to s’ciao and then today’s ciao is a short step:

Graphic showing how the word ciao in Italian came from s'ciao and before that s'ciavo.

The expression ‘your slave’ or ‘your servant’, common centuries ago, became well-known in the comedies of Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) and it’s also seen in the Germanic/Central European courtesy word servus, which means the same thing.

Ciao was first adopted in Northern Italy and gradually made its way to the rest of the country. It’s strange that such a well-known Italian word is a relatively recent addition to the language.

What Does Ciao Mean in Italian?

Mother and daughter greeting someone on the computer

In Italian we used the word ciao as an all-purpose greeting and farewell.

It means both ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’.  Or, as it’s very casual, ‘hi’ and ‘bye’.

It has become popular in many other languages worldwide, often as ‘goodbye’ and sometimes as ‘hello’ too. These include:

  • Albanian
  • Bulgarian
  • Czech
  • Portuguese
  • Bosnian
  • Russian
  • Turkish
  • Japanese

Less Common Ways Ciao is Used

It’s also used as a way of saying ‘that’s it.’

For example:

Si è stancato del lavoro e ciao – He had enough of working and that’s it/he was off!

Italian children are often told to fare ciao (to wave hello or goodbye).

When Can You Say Ciao?

Boy saying 'ciao' in a speech bubble to another little boy.  They are standing in front of a dinosaur sculpture in front of a Paleontology Museum in Florence, Italy.

Ciao is often a default greeting when you don’t speak Italian.

In reality it should only be used in specific situations:

  • when you know someone well
  • in truly informal settings
  • if you’re saying it to someone younger than yourself

Otherwise, we have a host of other ways to say hello and goodbye – more on those below.

Don’t worry if you’re not an Italian speaker and you use ciao – no one is likely to object, but sometimes there are situations where something more formal or more precise is called for.

For example, ciao is too much of an informal salutation in situations like these:

  • you enter a shop in Italy
  • you are meeting someone for the first time
  • you’re saying goodbye to someone older than you

You may also find yourself saying ciao and the other person replying with something different. That’s totally normal too!

Good To Know: Italians don’t use ciao or other greetings to answer the phone. Instead, we say pronto, or ‘ready.’

Other Italian Greetings You Can Use

Boys walking and cycling on a gravel path in the woods in Tuscany.

Salve

This is pretty common greeting. It sits nicely on the boundary between a formal greeting and informal greeting, so if you’re not sure what to say, it’s a good one to go for! It’s more often used as ‘hello,’ but you can also use it to say ‘goodbye.’  

Good To Know:  This is a popular greeting on hiking trails in Italy. 

Buongiorno

It means good morning. For example, if you walk into a store you’d say buongiorno to the cashier.  It’s a polite way of saying hello in the morning, although it’s pretty much used throughout the day even into the afternoon (much like the French bonjour).

Buona giornata

A polite way of talking your leave. You’re literally saying ‘have a good day’ to the other person.

Buon pomeriggio

Much less used, especially in conversation. It means ‘good afternoon’ but it’s generally only used by newsreaders!

Buonasera

It means ‘good evening’ and is formal/polite.  This is what we used as an all-purpose ‘good afternoon’ and ‘good evening’. It’s usually used as a greeting. You’ll find it being used a lot more often (and earlier in the day) in the south of Italy than in the North.

Buona serata

Like buona giornata.  It’s formal/polite.It’s generally used to say goodbye in the late afternoon/evening: ‘Have a good evening.’

Buonanotte

Goodnight! This is basically what you say when you’re saying goodbye to someone for the last time that day, late in the evening (before they go to bed). It’s both formal and informal.

Arrivederci/la

This is the most literal equivalent of saying ‘goodbye’ in a formal/polite way.  It means ‘until we see each other again.’  If you want to be uber-polite it’s Arrivederla (often said to your bank manager!).

A presto

An informal way to say ‘see you soon.’

A fra/tra poco

An informal way to say ‘see you in a bit/a while’ (you’re going away and you’re coming back).

A dopo

An informal way to say ‘see you later.’

A più tardi

Another informal way to say ‘see you later.’

Alla prossima

An informal way to say ‘see you next time.’

Ci vediamo

Like ‘alla prossima,’ it’s an informal salutation.  It literally means ‘we’ll see each other,’ and it’s used as ‘see you later!’

Addio

It’s archaic, literary, or downright overdramatic.  It means ‘farewell’ (usually said by one star-crossed lover to another as they part forever).

Ciao Bella Meaning in Italian

Ciao Bella translates to ‘hello, beautiful,’ or ‘goodbye, beautiful.’ 

If you’re a young woman traveling in Italy, you’re likely to hear it on the street.  It’s used as a catcall here.  So, men – this isn’t a classy way to get a woman’s attention.  Try something else!

If you use it with someone you’re close to, it’s an endearing way to greet a young woman or say goodbye. 

I sometimes use it to greet a friend, and as a farewell on the phone.

Ciao in Pop Culture

After pizza, ciao is probably the most common Italian word to pass into other languages.

In 1959 Domenico Modugno (the singer famous for Volare) and Johnny Dorelli won the San Remo Song Festival with Piove,  but everyone remembers it for the chorus “ciao ciao bambina”.

1967 saw Luigi Tenco with another huge hit, “ciao amore ciao” which he performed at the San Remo festival with the famous French singer Dalida. Tenco tragically committed suicide, allegedly on learning that his song had been eliminated from the competition!

In the same year the Piaggio motorcycle company baptized its 49cc engine two-stroke scooter the ‘Ciao’. It went on to become one of the most popular models and was produced until 2006.

In 1990 when Italy hosted the World Cup Soccer Championship the mascot was a little green, white and red stick figure called Ciao.

Of course, the most popular ciao of recent times is probably the song “Bella Ciao” which was made famous by the Netflix global hit “Money Heist”. The song was sung by Italian partisans during the Second World War as an anti-fascist hymn to resistance and liberation, although the song has earlier origins (and different lyrics) and was probably sung by the mondine, women working in the rice fields of Northern Italy, especially in the Po Valley in protest against their harsh working conditions and exploitation.

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