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Loser and Sfigato

Some months ago the Italian vice minister of labor and social policy, Michel Martone, said that “Anyone who hasn’t graduated by the age of 28 is a sfigato”. “Sfigato” means loser. Needless to say, this statement arouse bitter controversy in Italy’s public opinion, giving its superficiality and lack of sensibility for treating with the situation of the young, who are carrying the heaviest burden of the crisis. There are some structural problems in Italy dramatically contributing to the existing condition, the university system of the country is note the same as the Anglo-Saxons ones, for example, with all its negative as well as positive implications, and the labor market itself is very different, with youth unemployment rate higher than 30%, which surely doesn’t motivate young people to do their best at studying. Not to consider the well known fact that even good students have low opportunities to find a job adequate to their past school efforts, while parents’ careers are often much more useful than good studies. Furthermore, some, if not a lot, of these “lazy” students who spend so many years to have a degree, are not lazy at all, they have to work to maintain their studies, or whatever their personal and family situation compel them to do in a country that doesn’t support poor students with adequate economic grants. Of course, Italians are “mammoni”, “mum is always the mum”, it’s said in Italy, and nowhere is this truer than in Italy. Young Italians are the last among Europeans in leaving their parents home, and the real social problems behind this fact are mixed with a lot of less motivated personal habits.

So, it’s not surprising at all if the president of “Young Entrepreneurs” in Italy is more or less a 40-year-old young man! All this, of course, deserves attention, but there are much more features in the words cited above that deserve attention, and that have normally passed unobserved. I’m referring in particular to the same word “sfigato”: as it’s often the case with translations, this word doesn’t mean exactly the same as the English “loser”. Actually, the comparison between sfigato and loser reveals a great deal about Italian and American culture and society, their differences and their similarities, given that the U.S. is the country which more rely on the label of “loser” to stick some of its people. To analyze the label assigned to the last men in society is by contrast to look at the direction where society claims to go, and at the mechanisms that permit to its most “vital” members to reach top places in social hierarchy. Briefly speaking, “sfigato” means “unlucky”, and derives from the word “sfiga”, i.e. “bad luck”. Basically to have “sfiga” is to have bad luck, so “sfigato” can be used both to mark an “unlucky individual”, who despite his or her efforts and willingness is constrained by the “fate” to an unhappy situation, or in a sense closed to the American “loser”, that is, someone who is responsible for having an “unsuccessful” life. In both cases, this gross word that has become very common in Italy in the last twenty years maintains some connections with the concept of “bad luck”: even when “sfigato” is used as a synonymous of “loser”, it nevertheless keeps some features of its original meaning, that is, a luckless person. So to speak, a sfigato stays somewhere between an unlucky human being and a loser.

But let’s proceed step by step. When treating with the meaning of a word, it’s always good to start from its etymological basis. In this case, the etymology of the word “sfigato” reveals some notable, curious, and even shameful implications for Italian culture and society. In fact, “sfigato” derives from “sfiga”, i.e. bad luck, and “sfiga” from “figa”, or “fica”, with the privative suffix “s”. While originally in Latin “fica” was the fruit of the fig tree, in contemporary coarse Italian it stands for “vulva”, and for extension for “vagina” (while the fruit is indicated with the masculine “fico”, contrary to the rule imposing feminine for fruit and masculine for the respective tree). Actually the use of such an implied metaphor is not at all a contemporary Italian invention, since other ancient populations like the Greeks used the fig as a metaphor for the female genital organ, and some ancient Italian poets and writers did too as well, probably deriving it from the visual similarity between the fruit and the organ. Broader metaphorical links between the fig, life and its origins are clearly not a peculiarity of Italian culture. Neither the linguistic relation between “fica” and luck, connecting the female genital part to prosperity, abundance, fertility – in a word precisely luck – is an Italian peculiarity, since other Latin tongues associate in some ways or another the concept of “luck” with the word “fica” or “figa” (actually contemporary colloquial Italian use the word “culo”, i.e. the buttocks, as a synonym of luck).

So, what is most remarkable Italian is the use of the word “sfiga” to express “bad luck”, more exactly, the incredible amount of its usage in contemporary colloquial Italian. All this has to sound even more significant when considering that, particularly in the north of Italy, for a peculiar use of synecdoche “figa” has by now become a vulgar but very used synonym of “girl”, mainly a beautiful girl. Hence “sfigato” is literally a man without “figa”, a man without girls. Similarly, the adjective “figo/a” means “cool”. While considerations about Italian male chauvinism are so clear that cannot pass unnoticed, is there anyone still wondering why Berlusconi governed Italy for almost twenty years? In fact, for Italians’ imaginary Berlusconi is not at all a “sfigato”, quite the opposite for a lot of people.

On the other hand, it’s also curious to notice that in English there is not a single word to express the concept of “sfortuna”, i.e. pure bad luck, or, if we consider such words as “misfortune” as an exact equivalent of the Italian “sfiga” or “sfortuna”, we still have to notice that they are much less used than the respective Italian equivalents. Don’t Anglo-Saxons have to deal so much with bad luck as Italians do? Are Americans luckier than Italians? (Please note that the expression “Americans” to name people from U.S.A is another synecdoche – a global one, and it’s not neutral at all – since a synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole, or the whole for a part. What about the Mexicans, for example? For every “synecdoche” there are many problems, it seems…)

Now let’s go back to the relation between sfigato and loser, and their hidden connections to Italian and American society and culture. Moving from the original meaning of “sfigato” to its secondary meaning, the one more closely related to the concept of “loser”, is to move from pure impersonal bad luck to individual agency and responsibility. Still, an Italian loser, a sfigato, never completely loses part of his bad luck, i.e. he’s never considered fully responsible for his unsuccessful life, never mind how idiot, lazy, miserable he can be. A sfigato can never be a pure loser. He just can’t, nobody can be a pure loser in Italy! As well as, by contrast, nobody can ever be a pure winner, never mind how hard one works in life, how much he deserves his success: without luck a person can not have a good life, maybe we all know it, but Italians are more likely to remind it (actually not even in the U.S. the word “winner” is used as an exact antonym of loser, does it mean people are more willing to envy than to admire? Nevertheless, the American self made man seems to fulfill pretty well the task of the winner…).

Such differences between a sfigato and a loser perfectly underline – and reinforce – some deep cultural and social differences between the two countries. Let’s take a closer look at the concept of “loser”: in a inner sense, the word “loser” implies that there is a competition, a social competition – so social that is assumed to be simply natural, as it’s often the case for dominant social and cultural habits. Everybody in decent health conditions can’t avoid participating. The end of the competition is a successful life, it’s actually the social competition for a successful life. Like in every competition, there are losers and winners, and a set of shared rules. Clearly the loser of this competition misses important successes in life, mainly due to his own fault. It’s effortless to note in this attitude some kind of Darwinism echoes, interpreted and misinterpreted in a popular contemporary American way. The Italian version of loser, sfigato, clearly misses any Darwinist hints, unless for a very weak overtone, probably derived by the Americans. The different impact Darwinism has had in Italy and the U.S. surely makes its appearance in this context too, assuming that even if Darwinism is not at the origin of the “loser-winner” vision of life, nonetheless it’s been used to justify it, and its notions some ways or another have penetrated deeper inside U.S. culture and language than in Italian ones (although it’s curious to note that in Italy there is not a revival of creationist thesis as there is in the U.S., given that the Vatican doesn’t seem to have any intention to resume them).

By contrast, it’s unavoidable not to relate the Italian posture for treating with “defeated human beings” to Italian deep Catholic tradition, even if the idea of “bad luck” doesn’t charm at all official religion. The religious connections of these concepts are clearly intriguing, linked as they are with Catholicism and Protestantism, but such a kind of Weberian analysis goes beyond the purpose of this essay. What I would like to emphasize here is the role the concepts of “loser” and “sfigato” respectively plays in contemporary American and Italian society. On the one side there is the U.S. stress on individual agency in determining one’s life success or lack of success, on the other side there is the Italy acknowledgment of the force of luck or bad luck, if not a stress on individual impotence, at least a reminding of it. Italians too have all an arrange of words to label men responsible for their alleged life failures, but they parsimoniously use these words just in specific circumstances, while the most often used term “sfigato” doesn’t directly imply individual agency and responsibility as it does the word “loser” in the U.S. Again, what really strikes is U.S. massive relying on the concept of “loser”, now a pillar of American culture, and the almost absolutist role individual agency plays in it respect to other forces.

All this has powerful implications. The American notion of “loser” implies an equal competition in which the individual can assert himself, and an equal competition normally implies an equal starting point, a shared set of rules, and a shared vision of the ends. Given that the idea of an equal starting point dramatically clashes with reality, while the all vision of a common end, or a set of less strictly shared ends, has to deal with each one subjectivity – it can’t be otherwise, especially in an individualistic culture – this means that equality lays in the possibilities open to a everyone to realize himself as a particular human being, that is, despite the differences at birth, the American society allows everyone to realize his or her inner vocation. If someone fails to realize himself, he is a loser. It’s his fault, not society, not bad luck, but his responsibility. The concept of “sfigato” relies on very different assumptions, and has different implications. First, there is not at all a social competition, and the individual is freed from the forceful race to success against his equals: but he’s not freed from the supernatural force of luck. Introducing the power of luck instantly reduces individual power: the all idea of individual agency has to deal with a major force which can smashes it given the unequal distribution of power within a human being and the force of “luck” (Destiny? Nature? God? ). The same feeling of subjectivity changes, since the change in individual agency; as no assumptions have to be made about equal starting points, so the ends have not to be necessarily compared. Both the ends and the starting points in Italy can be left to the will of God, or to the hands of destiny, or… just luck.

But the Italian, even if he’s freed respect to his American peer from the burden of losing such a tremendous competition as the American young seem so willing to undertake – considering that both the words sfigato and loser are prominently part of young vernaculars – is not freed at all from social judgment, he’s still responsible for his own life, and he still can be labeled as sfigato, which is clearly not a recommendable brand. In fact another interesting peculiarity of the sfigato stigma, in comparison to the American loser, is that it has a very strong “uncool” connotation, just to maintain a young vocabulary! A sfigato is really an uncool guy: the existence of really uncool Italian people such as sfigati are, implies by contrast that there are cool, even very cool people in the country. Of course in the U.S is full of cool people too, as well as it seems to be vital both for an American and an Italian teenager to be cool, but the worst nightmare of an American is to be a loser, while the worst nightmare of an Italian teenager is to be an uncool sfigato. An American has to undertake a competition for success, an Italian has to take care of having some qualities for being part of a group, the group of “cool” people: American emphasis on entrepreneurial individuality again stands out compared to Italian stress on group conservatism.

It’s still true that the emphasis on the supernatural force of “luck” implied in the word sfigato takes out some pressure from Italian young shoulders, but the other implications deriving from the actual use of the sfigato label seem to put back a great deal of them. So now we could take a deeper look at the features the expressions loser and sfigato share. The first one is that they are both part of a prominently young vocabulary: in Italy the word sfigato made it appearance a couple of decades ago or so, since no one older than 50 years commonly uses this word, not even in its original sense of an unlucky person. In the U.S. the expression loser is surely more common and widespread, it has a greater impact, nevertheless it’s a predominant young expression. This should highlight that both linguistic habits have a common rootage in contemporary Italian and American society, more exactly, in the cultural, economical, ideological, political, etc. values and structures they both share: from its original American form, the concept of loser has been transplanted to Italy, where it took the semblance of a sfigato accordingly to some deep Italian social and cultural peculiarities. Here lies the tensions of a word that originally had not any reference to a social competition, quite the opposite, but that for a matter of facts has come to correspond to one of the most powerful symbol of social competition in the world. After all, the relationships between sfigato and looser cannot but symbolize the relationships between their respective countries. Now, for a lot of aspects both loser and sfigato has come to share the same message: “You’re in, or you’re out”.

The competition metaphor implied by in the word loser, stressing individual agency, reinforces the active willingness of the individual to engage in a race to social success, while the figure of the sfigato, based on the lack of fortune and coolness, originally feeds the individual resignation to his or her social condition. Both have powerful implications, both contribute to a particular perception of one’s own subjectivity, and life possibilities. Both, contributing as well to a particular perception of society, reinforce its structures. Both work for some aspects, and don’t for a lot of others, and both work better in their respective environment.

Just to go back to where we started, the Italian vice minister who said “Anyone who hasn’t graduated by the age of 28 is a sfigato”, has actually to thank his father for his working career, especially his father’s friendships, more than his studies and his efforts, for as great as they may have been. It doesn’t need a great effort to dismantle the American dream even in the U.S., but sure it costs even less efforts not to apply it as it is to Italy. And the results are better.

It’s all about social approval, I know. But what is this approval about?

  • Maeyken van Helden 16 Nov 2014

    Hello Michele, I’ve read your article about the word ‘sfigato’ and I thank you for the enlightenment, I came upon the word in a book by Miccoló Ammaniti as I”m trying to learn Italian – don’t think I like the book but I liked your essay. Always interested in hidden meanings and connotations that are not revealed in dictionaries. Grazie tanto.
    Maeyken van Helden, The Netherlands

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  • Francesco 03 Feb 2016

    As you said these words were born in different environments, so they work better in their respective countries. But in the end they are used with the same purpose: insulting and diminishing the others. Becouse there are no “winners” without “losers”, and “fighi” without “sfigati”, people who wants to identify themselves as the “winners” need to find someone to call “loser”.
    This “black and white” vision of life, so simplified and limited, is something that intrigues only the simple minded people, that most likely are the majority of human beings, and the majority of our society.

    So what these simple minded people approve is themselves. Anything that is outside their parameters is diminished and excluded. That’s how this society preserves itself, by diminishing anything that is “different” and “uncommon”. Can you immagine what would happen if people started thinking “Oh my gosh! Tablets are completelly useless, why would I buy one?”, our entire echonomic system would start to tremble.

    So to me it doesn’t matter if it means “bad luck”, or “not putting enough effort”, it’s just a way to diminish and exclude people that are “unusual”. This society approves anything and anyone that is part of the echonomic system, simple as that. Anyone that fails the system or tries to get out of it is marked as “loser”, “sfigato”, a repellent monster to be banished. The nightmare of the modern society, the fear of losing our place in this world, fear of death.

    In the end this is just a simplified way to see the life, that simple minded people unconsciously use to preserve this society. For people who try to have a deeper point of view it’s not really a big deal. If you consider people who constantly seek approval in this society as people that are also trying to feed their ego, than maybe this quote might explain alot:

    “Ego=1/Knowledge. More the knowledge lesser the ego, lesser the knowledge more the ego.” – Albert Einstein

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