Terms of Derision and Name-Calling in Don Giovanni

Upon opening my Giovanni score (well-worn, now embarking on its 8th production), I was greeted by an old friend. During a 1995 production, my colleague Laurie Rogers created a wonderful document called “Terms of Derision and Threats of Violence in Don Giovanni” in which she outlined some 83 Italian insults and threats in the libretto.

Two things occur to me every time I see this list. (Which is about every 5-7 years, it seems:)) First, that this story is full of people who have no trouble being nasty. Second, that the English language pales next to its colorful Italian cousin, and we are particularly weak when it comes to vivid nouns.

Today, a review of some “Terms of Derision” in Da Ponte’s libretto.

How do the people in Giovanni’s life refer to him?

  • Barbaro – a heartless, crude, savage, cruel man (used by Elvira and Leporello)
  • Mostro, fellon, nido d’inganni – a monster, traitor, birthplace of deception and deceit (Elvira)
  • Ingrato – a thankless, ungrateful man (um… Elvira again)
  • Perfido – treacherous, traitorous, double-crossing man (Elvira, and almost everyone else at one time or another)
  • Scellerato – wicked, abominable, depraved, degenerate man (Anna’s father)
  • Uccisore – murderer (Ottavio, calling a spade a spade)
  • Rèstati, barbaro! Nel lezzo immondo esempio orribile d’inquinità! – Stay here in your disgusting stench of horrible immorality, you crude and vulgar man. (Leporello, finally fed up. Why can we not curse like this and not get arrested?)

What names does Giovanni use to refer to them?

  • Birbone – a lazy, cheating, lying, good-for-nothing (Leporello)
  • Gran gonzo – a big chump, an easily fooled sap (Leporello again)
  • Bestia – idiotic, foolish, animal-stupid (poor Leporello…)
  • Bifolcaccio – a rude, clumsy, brutish, clumsy man (of Zerlina’s fiancé Masetto)
  • Villano, mascalzon! Ceffo da cani! – villainous, thieving, dog-faced crook (Masetto again)
  • Scioccone – big fool (and once again, Masetto)
  • Sconsigliata – foolhardy, misguided woman (of Anna, when she foils his plan to force himself on her)

Zerlina’s fiancé Masetto uses pretty colorful language to refer to his bride-to-be…

  • Bricconaccia, malandrina – cheating, lying, tramp
  • Bricconcella – hussy… floozy… whore
  • Strega – witch

The next time you need some powerful epithets that won’t get you fired or kicked out of the house, feel free to call on some of these. You’ll feel a great catharsis, and everyone will just think you’re a cultured polyglot :)

Next: Threats of violence! Stay tuned.


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