Ciao and arrivederci are two of the most well-known Italian greetings – in fact, even those who have had zero contact with the Italian language before tend to be familiar with these terms.
The difficulty for beginners is knowing when it is appropriate to use ciao as opposed to arrivederci and vice versa. In this article, we attempt to explain the differences.
The Meaning and Origin of ‘Ciao’
Ciao is an informal greeting used interchangeably to mean both “hi” and “bye“. When used as a parting salutation, it is common to say the word twice – ciao ciao – which is similar to the English “bye bye“. Ciao should be avoided in formal contexts, such as job interviews or when saying goodbye to your boss.
Ciao, come stai?
Hi, how are you?
However, according to La Gazzetta Italiana, the word ciao has not always been an informal greeting. On the contrary, it was once a formal salutation used by those of the lower social class to respectfully salute those of a higher class. It derives from the Venetian dialectal expression s’ciavo vostro, which literally means “I am your slave/servant“.
By the 19th and 20th centuries, the greeting had reached much of Northern Italy and subsequently the rest of the peninsula, during which time it transformed from s’ciavo into the ciao we know today. It also lost its deferential meaning in the process, becoming a standard greeting used between family and friends regardless of age, social status, or gender.
The expression fare ciao (con la mano) means “to wave hi / bye”. Parents often use it towards children when asking them to greet someone by opening and closing their hand.
Besides “hi” and “bye”, ciao also has a couple of other meanings which aren’t immediately obvious until you become more familiar with Italian. Sometimes it can be used to communicate scepticism, frustration or disappointment, as in the phrase:
Dobbiamo consegnare i compiti domani. – Sì, ciao, buonanotte!
We have to hand in our homework tomorrow. – Yeah, right, whatever!
(lit. Yes, bye, goodnight!)
When it appears as e ciao (lit. and bye), it indicates the definitive conclusion of something.
Dopo dieci anni insieme, ha incontrato un’altra, e ciao!
After ten years together, he met someone else and that was the end.
The Meaning and Origin of ‘Arrivederci’
The greeting arrivederci is more formal than ciao, and should be used towards those of a higher social status (e.g. teachers, your boss) or people you don’t know very well (e.g. a salesperson or elderly person on the street).
That being said, you will hear the older generation use arrivederci even with people they know well. My 80-year-old mother-in-law, for example, often concludes our conversations with arrivederci instead of ciao, and we are very close.
Unlike ciao, it is always used when leave-taking, never when saying hello to someone.
Arrivederci is actually a compound word consisting of four parts: a + ri + vedere + ci.
A is a preposition meaning “to / at / in” but in this case it is closer in meaning to “until”.
Some other greetings that use a include a dopo (see you later), a presto (see you soon), a più tardi (see you later), a domani (see you tomorrow), alla prossima (until next time), and a stasera (see you tonight).
Ri is a prefix that conveys the repetition of an action, much like the prefix “re” in English (as in “repeat” and “redo”). Here are a few other examples of words in Italian that use ri:
- ricordare = to remember
- riprendere = to reclaim / get back
- rifare = to do/make again
Vedere is an -ere verb that means “to see”. By connecting it to ri, you get the verb rivedere (“to see again” or “to review”).
Non vedo l’ora di rivedere Lucia.
I can’t wait to see Lucia again!
Fammi finire di rivedere questi documenti.
Let me finish reviewing these documents.
Finally we come to ci, a particle that has numerous different meanings depending on the context. In the case of arrivederci, it is the reciprocal reflexive pronoun “each other” or “one another”.
- Ci vediamo spesso. = We see each other frequently.
- Ci sentiamo spesso. = We hear each other often. / We speak to each other often.
In short, arrivederci literally means:
until + again + see + each other
Or as we might word it more naturally in English:
Till we see each other again.
In addition to meaning “goodbye”, arrivederci is also used as a way of cutting a conversation short, especially when you realise that the other person is wasting your time.
As we’ve seen, the main difference between ciao and arrivederci lies in the degree of formality that is conveyed by the speaker. Ciao is used in informal situations between close friends and family, whereas arrivederci should be used with everyone else if you want to play it safe.