A few weeks ago, Word Stories looked at the interesting case of the usual suspects and how the origin of the phrase can be pinpointed to a very precise origin: the film Casablanca. Although being able to identify such an exact source is rare – the best we can do usually is to suppose that a word, say, derived from a certain foreign language in a certain century – it’s not exceptional. One film which gave English not just a catchphrase or an expression but a singular word is Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and that word is paparazzi.
Just by looking at the word you can guess it is of Italian origin and if you know anything about Italian plural marking you’ll also see that paparazzi is the plural of the singular paparazzo.
In La Dolce Vita, Paparazzo is the name of a character, a photographer who goes to great lengths to take snaps of American stars.
Paparazzo as a surname is common in Italy, particularly Calabria, but there are a couple of theories about why Fellini chose it.
It could have been borrowed from a travel book titled By the Ionian Sea, by George Gissing, in which appears an Italian hotel owner called Coriolano Paparazzo. On the other hand, paparazzo, in the Abruzzi dialect, means ‘clam’ which perhaps alludes to the opening and closing of a camera lens. What’s more, the –azzo suffix has negative connotations in Italian.
Whatever the reasoning behind naming the character, something about the word stuck so there was obviously a need for it in our lexicon. Fellini himself said it suggests ‘a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging’. In fact, the film was released in 1960 and just one year later it was being used in the sense we recognise today:
Kroscenko…is a paparazzo, one of a ravenous wolf pack of freelance photographers who stalk big names for a living and fire with flash guns at point-blank range.