I absolutely love this story by Julian Miglierini (BBC Rome):

A few weeks back, primary school teacher Margherita Aurora, in the small town of Copparo in central Italy, was intrigued when one of her students, Matteo, used an unfamiliar word in a written assignment.

Matteo described a flower as “petaloso” (“full of petals”). The word doesn’t officially exist in the Italian dictionary, but grammatically it makes sense as a combination of “petalo” (“petal”) and the suffix “-oso” (“full of”).

The assignment got Aurora thinking – could the eight-year-old Matteo have invented a new word? With his teacher’s help, the student wrote to the Accademia della Crusca – the institution that oversees the use of the Italian language – to ask for their opinion.

To their surprise, the pair got an encouraging reply.

“The word you invented is well formed and could be used in the Italian language,” one of the Crusca’s top linguistic experts wrote. “It is beautiful and clear.”

But, the linguist added, for a word to officially be part of the Italian language, a large number of people need to use it and understand its meaning. “If you manage to spread your word among many people who start saying ‘What a petaloso flower this is!’, then petaloso will have become a word in Italian.”

Matteo’s teacher was touched by the reply – “this is worth more than a thousand Italian lessons” she wrote on her Facebook account on Monday – and shared pictures of the letter.

Inadvertently, she triggered a movement to do exactly what the Crusca had asked: make “petaloso” a widely known and used word.

Her original Facebook post has been shared more than 80,000 times. On Twitter #petaloso was used almost 40,000 times. The word quickly became the top trending topic in Italy and briefly hit the list of top worldwide trends on Wednesday. Many tweeters used the word in context – demonstrating its wide use and commonly understood meaning.

The Crusca itself – an institution created in 1583 – joined in the online effort and retweeted messages using the word. The Zanichelli publishing house – which publishes one of most widely referenced Italian dictionaries – hinted that it would include the word in its next edition. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi even chipped in to congratulate the young student.

“Petaloso” is now well on its way to becoming an official Italian word thanks to an eight-year-old’s imagination – and the power of social media.

There is, by the way, a direct equivalent in English: “petalous” has been a word since at least the early 18th century.

I’m not usually crazy about invented words, since they’re nearly always about showing off the cleverness of the inventor and there is no linguistic need or use for them (as evidenced by the fact that they are all stillborn, except for the Simpsons’ “cromulent,” which lives on as a token to show that one knows the memes of one’s time), but this is (in the words of one of the Crusca’s top linguistic experts) well formed, beautiful and clear; it fits nicely into the language and people enjoy using it, and (best of all) the Accademia della Crusca is enthusiastically on board with it! If you’ve got to have an official language academy, that’s the kind to have. And I’m also impressed that the journalist took the trouble to consult and cite the OED. (Via the Log.)


  1. Someone has wasted no time cashing in:

  2. Squiffy-Marie von Bladet says

    Nice, but I think I’ll stick with my old kamelåså.

  3. At least, for this word, etymologists and dictionary editors will know exactly by whom this word was coined and when… Of course, with such a regular formation, it may well have been formed and used independently before…

  4. @Hans: According to the Log post, it may already have been antedated to 1695.

  5. Jim (another one) says

    “There is, by the way, a direct equivalent in English: “petalous” has been a word since at least the early 18th century.”

    It sounds like botanical jargon though, like “squamate” or “ferrulous” or “pinnate”.

  6. Quite right; the OED qualifies it as “Bot. rare.” and has only four citations, starting with

    1719 tr. J. Pitton de Tournefort Compl. Herbal I. 1 The petalous or leafy Flower is divided into simple and compound [Fr. si c’est une fleur, à feuille elle sera ou simple ou composée].

    and ending with

    1994 Jrnl. Plant Res. 107 237 The early floral development [of Trillium apetalon Makino] was observed in comparison with that of T. Kamtschaticum Pallas ex Pursh having petalous flowers.

  7. David Marjanović says

    T. Kamtschaticum

    A capital letter in a species name? That can’t be an accurate quote from 1994.

  8. You’re quite right. Notify the OED!

  9. Jim (another one) says

    “having petalous flowers.”

    If this sounds redundant, it’s not. Lots of flowers don’t have petals – oaks, maples, figs and a whole range of others.

    “A capital letter in a species name?”

    OED may have boobooed but at least the botanist didn’t. This species must have been named when botanists were still trying to get the adjective to agree with the noun, even across languages. This time both are Latin but they used to do it with Greek names lie “rhododendron”. They don’t really bother with that anymore.

  10. I was weirded out when I discovered that Aranea, which I had read about in books on spiders as a kid, was now known as Araneus. Since most of the spiders we actually encounter are female, I thought that was rather petty of the nomeclators. Fortunately, Tegenaria and Agelena have remained feminine.

    Another Wikipeeve: in pages on genera or higher-order taxa, the links to the next taxon down are listed in useless alphabetical order (after all, we all have Ctrl+F/Command+F) instead of being sensibly grouped by location or size or sumpn.

  11. The Howard and Moore checklist of birds of the world regularly corrects the Latin names for birds, many of which are gender corrections. There are a lot of these and although I don’t have the book at hand, the following appear to be a few examples: Lophura leucomelana > Lophura leucomelanos; Lagopus mutus > Lagopus muta; Treron bicincta > Treron bicinctus; Treron phoenicoptera > Treron phoenicopterus.

  12. David Marjanović says

    Lophura leucomelana > Lophura leucomelanos

    Hm. “melana” looks wrong anyway, so I can’t tell which side of Article 31.2.3 it falls on. The article is a strange compromise; you can see that the Code is quite literally authored by a commission.

    Lagopus mutus > Lagopus muta

    A feminine foot?

  13. The Italian linguistics expert’s “well-formed, beautiful, and clear” reminds me of Holofernes’ praise of “the posteriors of the day” for “afternoon” in Love’s Labour’s Lost: “liable, congruent and measurable . . . well culled, choice, sweet and apt”.


  1. […] Language Hat and Language Log report on the crowdsource-legitimized Italian word “petaloso”. […]

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