Italian Word for the Week: Vespa

A Vespa is, of course, a motorcycle – but it’s also a wasp. 

Vintage couple riding Vespa scooter in Italy, woman taking photos, front view

Vespa – Wasp

It’s obvious, when you think about it, why they called the scooter the ‘wasp’. It sounds like one – and the yellow ones even look like one. The Italian word is clearly very closely related to the English word, and is what linguists call ‘imitative’: the word sounds like the thing it describes.

In Spanish, it’s ‘avispa’; in German it’s ‘wespe’; in Dutch – and in some English dialects – it’s ‘jasper’ (pronounced ‘yasper’ in the Dutch). In Danish it’s ‘hvesp’, which is nice. In prehistoric caveman talk it would have been something very similar… “What’s that buzzing around the cave, Ug?” “It’s a pvvssp, Ug.” “Ah, I see… Can’t you usher it out the window?” “We haven’t done windows yet, Ug…” That’s where the word comes from. It’s very old.

There’s no need to worry about the Latin on this one. Latin is a modern language when it comes to words for wasps. (It’s ‘vespa’, by the way, same as in modern Italian.) Curiously, in French the word is ‘guêpe’, which is actually related but has mutated a bit. They always have to be different, the French.

Useful Phrase

Vespa! Rospo maledetto!
Wasp! Damned toad! (From Puccini’s Madame Butterfly)