Working together in all multilateral orifices

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A couple of months ago, an Italian friend brought to my attention a quirk of Italian usage. Like English, Italian has adopted the Latin word forum to mean "a place for public discussion".  In English, as usual with borrowed Latin words, the plural is sometimes "fora" (the original Latin plural) and sometimes "forums" (the regular English form). In Italian, borrowed words are often treated as invariabile ("invariant"), so that the plural is the same as the singular. For forum this yields the plural "forum", and (for example) "in tutti i forum" (meaning "in all forums") is common on the web.

But there are also two Italian words foro, plural "fori": one means "hole, opening", and the other means "court, tribunal".

The Italian noun foro "hole" and verb forare "pierce, prick, punch, puncture, drill" are apparently related to the (rare) Latin verb foro "bore, pierce", cognate with English bore. (The same root also shows up in foramen "opening or aperture", familiar from its many reflexes in Latin anatomical names.)  Italian foro "court, tribunal" presumably derives from Latin forum, the forum being a place where (among other things) justice was dispensed. (The etymology of Latin forum is apparently unknown.)

The issue then is what to call the various regional and global talking-shops such as those run by the United Nations. In English, they're "multilateral forums". In Italian, they might be treated as "forums", in which case the phrase should probably be "i forum multilaterali" — or as "tribunals", in which case the phrase should be "i fori multilaterali". But if you expect them to be "forums", and don't think of them at all as law-courts, then the phrase "i fori multilaterali" apparently evokes a different set of ideas, and often a few chuckles.

There are certainly examples of "forum multilaterali" out there. Thus this  2006 document from the Italian chamber of deputies explains that

L’Unione europea è attiva a livello internazionale, in tutti i forum multilaterali per l’abolizione della pena di morte.

In English, this would be something like

The European Union is active internationally in all multilateral forums for the abolition of the death penalty.

However, "fori multilaterali" seems to be roughly as common. Thus the page on Cooperazione politica ("Political cooperation") on the web site of the Italian embassy in Accra, Ghana, explains that

Sul piano della politica internazionale, il Ghana continua a svolgere un ruolo molto attivo in tutti i fori multilaterali, a cominciare dalle Nazioni Unite, alle cui forze di pace partecipa in modo significativo, soprattutto nei Paesi africani.

The English version of the same page renders that sentence this way:

In terms of international politics, Ghana continues to play an active role in all multilateral forums. Its forces are actively involved in United Nations peacekeeping activities in a significant way, especially in African countries.

And a few months ago, according to the Corriere della Sera, ("Giappone, l'Imperatore: anche io al buio: Lettera di Napolitano: 'Il popolo ce la farà'",  3/14/2011):

All'imperatore Akihito ha scritto il presidente Giorgio Napolitano, […]  «Da oltre sessant'anni – si legge nella missiva inviata da Napolitano – i nostri Paesi collaborano insieme in tutti i fori multilaterali nel sostenere la sicurezza e nel promuovere lo sviluppo economico mondiale.

President Giorgio Napolitano has written to the Emperor Akihito, […]
"For over sixty years – reads the letter sent by Napolitano – our two countries have worked together in all multilateral forums to support security and to promote world economic development."

[My knowledge of Italian is based largely on triangulation from Latin and French, so I apologize in advance for mistakes and misapprehensions.]


  1. John F said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 11:01 am

    Can't remember why now, but one time when I was in Italy I asked about forums as in the sense of a Roman-era place, thinking the plural was foro. Along with my lack of italian, this would explain why the person didn't understand me.

  2. Dan T. said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 11:41 am

    I seem to remember a tour guide in Rome, back in the 1980s when I went there, saying something about "forum" originating as a description of a particular place in the city (where the guide was taking the tour through at the time), meaning something like "open space" or "place between the hills" or something like that, extending later to mean a place of discussion because that was where the citizens in ancient times actually did get together to discuss things.

    [(myl) Yes — sorry for not going over what I thought was obvious. Lewis & Short gives the basic glosses "what is out of doors, an outside space or place; in partic., as opp. the house, a public place, a market-place, market"; "In gen., an open space"; "In partic., a public place, market-place". The meanings having to do with public discussion, judicial activities, etc., obviously come later and are derived from the "town plaza, marketplace" meaning.]

  3. Craig Russell said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 11:57 am

    The etymology of Latin 'forum' is not unknown; it is thought to be from PIE *dhur-o (area near the door) from PIE *dhuor-/*dhur ('door', whence our own English 'door', Greek 'θύρα', etc.). Even from the point of view of Latin, the relationship between 'forum' and the Latin adverb 'foris/foras' ("outdoors"), from the Latin noun 'foris' ("door"), would probably be felt.

    This is all given in Michiel de Vaan's 2008 Etymological Dictionary of Latin and other Italic Languages, with bibliography. Why the earlier reference materials (such as Lewis and Short's 1879 Latin-English Lexicon, widely available in convenient online editions) do not list this I am not sure.

    [(myl) The 1983 edition of the Oxford Latin Dictionary does not adhere to this theory. To be precise, the etymology field for forum reads in its entirety "dub., cf. next". The next entry is forus, whose etymology field reads "dub., perh. var. of prev." I don't know whether this reflects ignorance of de Vaan's proposal or disagreement with it.

    Lewis and Short says "etym. dub.; perh. root Sanscr. dhar-, support; dhar-as, mountain, etc.".

    Anyhow, forum has a different history from the for- in forare.]

  4. Bob Ladd said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

    Strictly speaking, the "two Italian words foro" are not the same, for at least some speakers. Italian has a marginal phonemic distinction – not indicated in the orthography, except very inconsistently when stress is indicated by an acute or grave accent – between higher and lower mid vowels (E and O). The distinction between fóro 'hole' and fòro 'forum' is supposed to be one of the minimal pairs, and some speakers, especially those from Tuscany, actually do consistently make the distinctions that dictionaries will tell you are correct. Presumably Mark's friend is not one of those speakers.

    Obviously, for any speaker, i fori multilaterali in print is going to be ambiguous and capable of evoking a few chuckles. But I wonder if any of those speakers who genuinely do speak like the dictionary chuckle in a slightly different way from those for whom the two words are really completely identical.

    [(myl) FWIW, my friend is from Rome.]

  5. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

    In Spanish, either foro or fórum can be used in the discussion sense (RAE: "reunión para discutir asuntos de interés actual"), but only foro in a legal sense (of which there are several). So it's probably similar in Italian.

    Spanish has another word derived from the Latin forum, namely fuero, meaning code of laws or charter.

  6. Pete McA said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

    Valpi says (citing Varro) that `forum'<`φορῶ'. What evidence suggests the `door' cognates over the `carry' cognates?

  7. GeorgeW said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

    @Craig Russell : Watkins ("The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots") gives the PIE *dhwer- with a basic meaning of 'door,' 'doorway.' He says about 'forum,' "marketplace (originally the enclosed space around a home).

  8. Yuval said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    Now why would you apologize *in advance*? Any mistakes or misapprehensions, if made, were made before you wrote the disclaimer, or in any case, before the reader got to it.
    Or is a mistake only created once noticed?…

    [(myl) An apology is delivered to a particular audience at a particular time. Since I'm not sure whether there are errors that merit an apology, I'm not apologizing now; but if it turns out that such errors exist, I'm queueing up an apology for automatic delivery.

    Is this a pet peeve of yours? ]

  9. Yuval said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

    Not a pet peeve, I was just wondering. I didn't mean that it couldn't be said the way you meant it to, but I hadn't thought of your reasoning, which of course makes perfect sense.
    So accept my after-the-matter apologies if I sounded snarky or otherwise offensive.

  10. Jim said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

    "Spanish has another word derived from the Latin forum, namely fuero, meaning code of laws or charter."

    And it also has the expression 'a fuera' for 'outdoors'.

  11. Dan T. said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 2:34 pm

    I need to have pet peeves… they're the only pets my condominium will allow!

  12. Emanuele Trucco said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

    A brief comment from a native Italian speaker. In italian, "il foro" (before looking at accents, which, as Bob Ladd correctly states, are never written and phonetically very inconsistent) means both "hole" and "a court of law" (Latin origin). Context normally disambiguates; I would expect chuckles to be more due to deliberately engineered double entendre than to genuine ambiguity. The plural of foreign words like "forum" (in the sense of a place where people discuss, physical or virtual), in common practice, is rather inconsistent; although the correct form is the invariant one ("un forum, due forum"), "forums" is also found, as in "ho letto di questo fatto in vari forums" (I read about this fact in various forums).

  13. Craig Russell said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 2:38 pm


    The two main modern references for Latin etymology are the German Walde & Hoffmann (1930-1954) and the French Ernout & Meillet (2nd edition 1967). I have neither of those at home, but de Vaan summarizes: Walde & Hoffmann actually do connect the word to forare, giving it the original meaning "fenced-in area", although this theory has not received wide acceptance.

    "forum is generally regarded as a derivative of PIE 'door', and connected with other IE forms from *dhuor-o-. The required semantic developent is 'area at the doors' > 'entrance room, vestibule' > 'public room' > 'public space'; this is not so problematic as to overrule the formal correspondences with Lith. dvaras." He then gives bibliography for this, which I can replicate if anyone is interested.

    The OLD is not primarily a work concerned with etymology, and is not considered a good source for it (I am not an expert in Latin etymology myself; this is coming from a professor with whom I took a graduate History of Latin seminar, who is). That said, it seems unlikely that the editors of OLD were unaware with this material. The OLD was released in fascicles between 1968 and 1982, so the 'forum' section was probably written in the seventies, when both WH and EM were available. I wonder if 'dub.' refers to the fact that WH connect it to 'forare' and EM to 'foris', and OLD didn't want to take a position.

  14. Paolo said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

    I am from Northern Italy, and it would take a very ambiguous context for me to find any amusing meaning in fori multilaterali. I would simply find it unusual as I would expect i forum multilaterali in a "discussion" context.

    Maybe in Rome, where Mark's friend is from, foro is commonly used to describe holes, but not so much in Northern Italy, where we say buco and perceive foro ("hole") as a higher-register synonym, only used formally or in written texts, e.g. instructions etc.

    Incidentally, principe del foro is a very common expression to describe any successful barrister (Google returns over a million hits); it could be interpreted as the English equivalent of "king of holes" (principe=prince), but unless one specifically wants to crack a joke and sets it up, I doubt this meaning would ever cross anyone's mind…

  15. army1987 said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

    I think the register difference between foro and buco for ‘hole’ applies throughout Italy.
    The mid-open–mid-closed vowel opposition does survive in Rome and most of central Italy (though with a lexical incidence not identical to the one in Tuscany), but it is neutralized in unstressed syllables so it's not implausible someone would use a mid-closed vowel in fori multilaterali in allegro speech. Anyway, foro ‘forum’ is even rarer than foro ‘hole’, so it's the latter I think to first when I see the word without sufficient context.

  16. rkillings said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

    Of course, "forum" can mean "court, tribunal" in English too (OED, sense 2). The ICJ, ECHR, ICTY, etc. are all fori multilaterali in this sense too.

    A UN talking-shop on abolition of the death penalty is not all that far removed from this sense.

  17. bfgray said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 10:27 pm

    Well, I'm no philologist, but according to Russian Wiktionary, the Russian word двор (dvor) – courtyard – is related to дверь (dver') – door, which would lend support to the forum as area outside the door theory. However, they canvas both possible etymologies of forum. (The etymological information is taken from M. Fasmer's dictionary, apparently.)

  18. John Swindle said,

    June 9, 2011 @ 1:35 am

    Does Italian have a lot of words borrowed from Latin?

  19. biagio said,

    June 9, 2011 @ 4:54 am

    Is the above John Swindle being ironic?

  20. John Cowan said,

    June 9, 2011 @ 10:09 am

    Biagio: Not at all. The answer is that all the Romance languages, including Italian, have many words borrowed from Latin as well as the basic words inherited from Latin. In Spanish, for example, the Latin word OPERA appears three ways: as a straight borrowing opera 'opera' (via Italian), as a modified borrowing (or semicultismo, as they are called in Spanish) obra 'work', and as an inherited word huebra 'acre (an obsolete measure of land, the amount that could be plowed in a day's work)'.

    The Romance languages also borrow from each other. The very word español 'the Spanish language' is a borrowing from Occitan or Catalan, whereas the lost inherited word would be españon, and Spanish has borrowed hundreds of words from Portuguese, Italian, and French throughout its history.

    What I do not know is whether other Romance languages have semicultismos. They characteristically show some but not all of the expected sound changes, and tend to be ecclesiastical or political. Other Spanish examples are: virgen, reino/a, siglo, regla, apóstol, obispo, milagro, peligro, cabildo from VIRGINEM, REGNUM/AM, SAECULUM, REGULA, APOSTOLUS, EPISCOPUS, MIRACULUM, PERICULUM, CAPITULUM respectively. Some of these have inherited counterparts with different meanings: reja, abocho, besbo, mirajo, perijo, cabejo.

    Are there similar words in the Romance languages other than Spanish and its immediate relatives?

  21. R said,

    June 9, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

    John Cowan: Are there similar words in the Romance languages other than Spanish and its immediate relatives?

    You mean words like the corresponding Italian vergine, secolo, miracolo, apostolo, etc.? I don't know enough about Latin->Italian sound changes to know whether these represent "normal" sound changes or the "simplified" changes of the semicultismos.

  22. Lazar said,

    June 9, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

    John Cowan: I remember reading that Italian adopted the Latin word "studio" at some point as a replacement for the evolved Italian version "stoggio".

  23. Lazar said,

    June 9, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

    (By "Latin", I mean "more Latinate".)

  24. L said,

    June 9, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

    Italian etymological dictionary:
    For each Italian word, it includes the equivalent forms in any other Romance language that also "inherited" or "borrowed" the same word from Latin, e.g.
    studio prov. estudis; fr. étude; sp. estudio; port. estudo: from Latin STUDIUM […]

    @Lazar – never heard of stoggio. According to the Zingarelli Italian dictionary, studio has been used in Italian since at least 1292.

  25. John Cowan said,

    June 9, 2011 @ 6:42 pm

    Claudio Tolomei (1492-1556) gives some early explanations of the distinction between borrowing and inheritance:

    … e ardirei dire che nel primo e puro parlar degli uomini toscani questa fosse universale e verissima regola, e tutti quei vocaboli, che ora altrimenti s'usano e scritti si trovano, come plora, implora, splende, plebe e simili, non fussero presi dal mezzo delle piazze di Toscana; ma poste innanzi dagli scrittori, e da qualche ingegno, che volse la lingua arricchire, che gli parse usargli, come nelle stampe latine gli trovò, senza dar loro forma di toscan parlare … perchè senza dubbio il comune uso di quel secolo averebbe, se egli avesse quei vocaboli ricevuto, *piora, *impiora, *spiende [asterisks added] e pieve detto, come di questo ultimo ne abbiamo manifesto segno, che volgarmente Pieve si chiama quella sorte di chiesa ordinata alla religione di una plebe.

  26. Bob Ladd said,

    June 10, 2011 @ 2:41 am

    @John Cowan: Yes, the Romance languages are full of such words – the standard jargon for a pair of words descended from the same original source by means of two different routes is a doublet. Often-cited doublets in French are trahison 'treason' and tradition 'tradition' or rançon 'ransom' and rédemption 'redemption', where the first member of each pair is a regular development from the Latin original and the second is a later import direct from Latin as a learned language. Because Latin lived on for centuries in more or less its classical form, in the church and in all kinds of legal and other formal contexts, even while the spoken language was naturally evolving into French, Italian, etc., there was a lot of opportunity for this kind of mixing.

  27. John Cowan said,

    June 10, 2011 @ 7:43 pm

    Right, right, right. But what I want to know is this: do languages other than Spanish (and Aragonese etc.) have three paths: borrowed without adaptation (as opera), borrowed with adaptation (as obra), and inherited (as huebra)? So far, no one has said yea or nay.

  28. Xmun said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 4:07 am

    How about, say, "plait", "plash", "pleach", "pleat"? Derived variously from *plic(i)tum, *plectiare, *plechier, but all ultimately, I take it, from the same Indo-European root, whatever that may be.

  29. army1987 said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 5:33 am

    Completely unassimilated borrowings from Latin to Italian (not counting those where the Latin word already sounds Italian enough, say opera) are rare, and mostly through English (though they are usually pronounced the Italian school Latin way by at least some speakers).

  30. L said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 7:02 am

    @John Cowan: you might find some information in this article:

    It covers doppioni etimologici (or allotropi etimologici) in Romance languages, with a specific focus on Italian.

  31. Bob Ladd said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 7:52 am

    @John Cowan: I'm sure there are some good examples of triples in other languages (some are cited in the paper linked to by L immediately above, and some in the Wikipedia article on "etymological doublets"), but the point is it's not really three paths, just two: direct inheritance (e.g. huebra) and borrowing (obra and opera). The only difference between the latter two is when they were borrowed – obra was borrowed early enough to be subject to the intervocalic weakening of /p/, but opera was borrowed much later. A language could borrow the same word multiple times and have it undergo different sound changes depending on when it was borrowed, whereas there should (in theory!) be only one directly inherited form. (There are actually various ways in which you sometimes get more than one directly inherited form, like French dîner/déjeuner, but let's not get into that – and for the sake of my example here, I sure hope huebra/obra isn't such a case…)

  32. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

    @Bob Ladd:

    In general, yes, we can distinguish alternate forms of borrowed words according to the date of borrowing, and hence their relative chronology with respect to various sound changes and other changes. Relative chronology can be obscured, however, if a sound change or other change gives rise to a synchronic phonological rule or process that remains productive at the time of borrowing. Words borrowed after the sound change occurred could still undergo the synchronic process as part of the phonological assimilation of the borrowed word, making it appear the word was borrowed earlier, when in fact it was borrowed later.

    Examples include borrowings from English, French or other languages, which contain final voiced obstruents, into German, where they generally undergo word-final obstruent devoicing. There was actually an earlier LL post about this, with interesting comments from native speakers, some of whom claimed that certain recent borrowings in fact did retain their final voiced obstruents. Whatever truth there is in this, it does seem that most recent borrowings are eventually assimilated through application of final devoicing. In terms of relative chronology this results in quite a chronological gap between the time of borrowing and the time of the sound change that is supposed to account for the devoicing. I personally believe that Modern German devoicing only dates from the 16th century at the earliest, which still gives about three centuries or so, if we're talking about 20th century borrowings. Some would argue, however, that German devoicing arose out of a sound change that occurred in the early Middle German period (11th-12th centuries), which increases our chronological gap at least twofold.

    Regarding Spanish "obra", the particular form is quite probably due to the date of borrowing relative to the sound changes leniting medial [p] and syncopating the unstressed or unfooted [e]. I don't know enough about the history of Spanish, but if there were some synchronic lenition or syncopation going on in Spanish after these changes occurred, those could theoretically also account for the form we have.

    BTW, how do I do italics in the comments? Is it [i][/i] or something else?

  33. John said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 9:40 am

    As an archaeologist working in Italy, I can confirm that Italians who use Latin words tend to pronounce them the Italianate way, even scholars who know what the original pronunciation was like. In a scholarly context, American scholars tend to pronounce Latin words with the original pronunciation, though there are exceptions.

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