Saturday, November 8, 2008


So this is sort of a double confession of ignorance, or maybe a confession of ignorance laced with a dash of the unobservant is more accurate. Last night, my sister and cousin were in town and we were having dinner on the wharf from which you could see the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, which celebrated its hundredth anniversary last year. On the walls of the restaurant were some historic Boardwalk pictures, one of which was of the 'first casino fire'. My sister asked, "Is the casino still there?" and I said no, that there were conference rooms and a ballroom there now. She said that the word casino, which we now associate with gambling, actually just means large meeting room. Santa Catalina, for instance, has a casino but it was never a gambling place. I would suspect that Santa Cruz wouldn't have had much tolerance for that either.

The unobservant part comes in as they were driving me home, and we came toward the front of the building, where the word CASINO shown in very prominent neon. This wouldn't be such a big deal, except that I live close enough to the Boardwalk that I can see that sign from my window. Admittedly, it's turned sideways toward me, but it's not like I've never walked along that stretch of pavement. So yes, there is still a casino at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, but it in truth more of a game arcade.

Anyway, we now have some inkling of what 'casino' means, but now I'm curious about its origins. It sounds like it must have Italian or Spanish origins, but we shall see...

Okay, it does all begin in Italy, and in the way that words do sometime begin meaning something almost opposite to what they mean now, 'casino' is Italian for little house. I suppose in Spanish it would be 'casita'.

In Italy, the word was first applied to a country house, and you only have to think of all the cutesy names Americans have had for their getaway homes to understand the diminutive aspect here. But just as inevitably, the word came to encompass what one might do in a country house, and so came to mean a place to dance, listen to music, and gamble. Apparently gambling took over as the main association to the word, first in Italian and then in English. It appeared in English in its first (or second) meaning of 'social gathering place' in the 18th century, and then meaning 'gambling establishment' in 1851.

So what was really going on on Santa Catalina that they felt obliged to use this word? I'll bet there were some card games to be found--and they weren't just betting toothpicks.


  1. Seanag

    Casino is not exactly Italian for little house-the correct diminutive of casa (house) is casina,with the -a ending denoting in both cases feminine grammatical gender.
    Casino is possibly dialectal - in any case,it originally meant either 1) a pavillon or adjacent structure to a country house,often used for feasts and dancing, or 2) a hut for hunting or fishing.
    Later it came to mean bordello,or brothel-and ,figuratively,mess or chaos (and through another shift in meaning, "a lot" ).
    Nowadays the non-figurative use is more or less limited to the historical casini,which were legally recognized by the state until the 1959 Merlin Law outlawed them,while the figurative use is alive and well:

    La tua stanza è un casino / Your room is a mess
    Non trovo mai niente in questo casino / I never find anything in this chaos
    Questo film mi è piaciuto un casino / I liked this film a lot
    Ho un casino di cose da fare/ I've got a lot of things to do

    The French novel Total Kheops by J.C.Izzo is rendered in English as Total Chaos and in Italian as Casino Totale.

    The term for a gambling house in modern Italian is casinò (the accent denotes that the main stress is on the o,whereas in casino is on the i).


  2. Marco,

    When it comes to words of Italian origin (and maybe not just those alone), I should perhaps just put the word in the subject and let you fill in the rest!

    I will say that I wondered why it was 'casino' and not 'casina', given that I was pretty sure Italian would have 'house' as feminine just as it is in Spanish.

    How did a term as curious as the "Merlin Law" enter into Italian?

    Bordello, huh? I am becoming more and more convinced that there were some shananigans going on on Santa Catalina Island that they didn't want anyone knowing about. And probably here at the Boardwalk too. After all, at one point there was a whole underground swimming pool here.

    One of my friends at the bookstore, whose family background is Sicilian, has as one of her life missions gettng all of the staff to speak Italian, so she often ends our morning meetings with an Italian word of the day. She will be thrilled to learn that I can now say four whole sentences.

    Izzo's Total Chaos was a staff pick recently for our in store newsletter. I've been meaning to get to it for awhile, so I'm bumping it up the list.

    Thanks!(Although if I have to factor in my ignorance in foreign languages as well, this whole enterprise may completely founder. Casino totale!)

  3. How did a term as curious as the "Merlin Law" enter into Italian?

    The law took his name from its promoter and first signatory Senator Lina Merlin, who drafted the bill and followed it through a very laborious and conflicted parliamentary process.
    No relation to the wizard or the falcon -at best merlin could be a diminutive of merlo (blackbird)

    I like Izzo's Marseille Trilogy very much- TC is the first,the others are Chourmo and Solea.


  4. Thanks. I am still curious how she came by that name. Having just recently read T. H. White's The Once and Future King, Merlin is still much on my mind, and I am not totally convinced that he wasn't making an appearance in your parliament by means of a sly trick.

    I look forward to the Izzo trilogy.
    Is he an Italian transplant to France, or is Izzo a common enough Marseilles sort of name?

  5. Merlini is an Italian surname,Merlin is a variant from the Veneto Region,where the loss of the final i in surnames is quite common (Paolin,Agnolin,Bettin,Franceschin,Benetton, and so on)
    Izzo was the son of an Italian immigrant,and so was the protagonist of his trilogy,Fabio Montale.
    Marseille was/is a city of immigration,and among other things the novels compare the modern day situation of Arabs with the earlier status of the Italian immigrants- Montale suffered very strongly and empathizes with the Arabs,others (like his cousin) are now successfully integrated and look down on them.


  6. Marco, you are better than Google at getting me the answers I want. And possibly better than Amazon at giving good book recommedations. Picked up Total Chaos today and am already absorbed--your mini-bio of Izzo sets me up well.

    My v word is 'guarde'. Surely this our word verifier's way of acknowledging its Italian side, which we have of course all long suspected.

  7. I'm commenting on my own thread again just to mention that after listing 'casino' as my subject, I've been treated to a whole host of casino related spam. I find this amusing more than anything else. I guess these spyders or whatever they are that troll around the internet see the word 'casino' and decide that they've found the next gambler's anonymous member on their hands. It almost tempts me to post other charged words as my entries and see what happens. Can't think of anything that suits right now, though, which is probably just as well.l

  8. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  9. Thank you so much, Margaret. I don't get many comments from people who happen upon this blog randomly, and though of course no comments are necessary, all comments are welcome. Thank you for taking the time to drop a line.