28 October 2020

Where does the word "Casino" come from?

At some point in our adult lives, most of us step foot into a casino.  Old casinos, new casinos, posh casinos, scruffy casinos – they certainly don’t come as a uniform mass.  Yet, for a lot of people our only experience of casinos is from movies like the James Bond franchise where they feature large, opulent surroundings full of glamorous people who don’t look as if they have had to work a day in their lives. So curiosity leads us through the doors.

For me, as many of you know, the pleasure is more often in the word than the experience.  Casino is a word with immediate cachet.  We all know what it means.  Where, though, did it originate? To learn that we have to roll back a few centuries and visit a certain European country.  From the lovely roll-on-the-tongue sound of the word, any guesses?

Yes, it’s Italy.    In Italian, the word for a house is “casa”.  To get the diminutive, Italians add “ino” at the end of their nouns.  So, casino literally means a “little house”.  This implies that it is not necessarily lived in by a family but the creature comforts that they might expect at home are also available there.  As the word evolved and became its own noun rather than simply the diminutive of one, it expanded to mean more.  It could be a summerhouse, a villa in the country or a social club.  That was the origin of the word in the sixteenth century.  Later it would come to mean more.

Flash forward a few hundred years and the word certainly evolved.  In the 1800s it came to be inclusive of other public buildings – anywhere, really, where enjoyable and pleasing activities took place.  Usually built in the grounds of larger buildings, these casinos could hold any number of different things, from concerts to dancing, civic functions, sports to, yes, of course – gambling.

This coincided with the mass emigration of Italians to the land of the brave, the home of the free – and they took their words with them.  The word casino was adopted in America and soon devolved to a single meaning, that with connotations of gambling.  So that’s why the word casino all over the world – down to the Americans as much as the Italians.  However, although that’s how it went it the US of A, back in the word’s home country of Italy, things evolved even further.

If you ask a twenty first century Italian what the word casino means they will probably tell you to go and look in a dictionary.  If, however, they are feeling linguistically generous they will inform you that the word means a mess, a noisy place or a confusing situation.  If you ask about gambling they will tell you that it has an accent - casinò.  That little squiggle on top of the ‘o’ changes the meaning of the word entirely but it is not something that the rest of the world has decided to emulate.

Mind you, in Spain, if you ask for a casino you will get sent to the nearest army barracks where the word means an officer’s mess.  That sounds very much like a story for another day, so for now let’s leave this particular word to itself...! 

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