The Insulting Story Behind the Word 'Terroni'


As the economy in the south of Italy turned to dust, people turned to the cities in Northern Italy - Milan, Turin, Genoa. These thriving industrial cities instilled in the southerners’ heart the only thing that was missing - hope.

WW2 destruction dragged into the 50s in the South of Italy, smashing to smithereens people’s hope. The little fruit the land was bearing was worthless. Southern Italians had nothing left to do but look for a better life in the North.

An all-out clash between two worlds

In the late 50s hundred of thousands of southern Italians left their rural villages and landed in the industrialized north of Italy.

The destruction of WW2 dragged on in the South of Italy, smashing to smithereens not just the rural economy but even people’s hope. The little fruit the land was bearing was worthless. Southern Italians had nothing left to do but look for a better life in the North. Cities like Milan, Turin and Genoa had a lot to offer. They had a new wealth and a new beginning that didn’t go unnoticed. They had all sorts of factories and industries like FIAT, the car making company that started to be competitive on a global scale. Southerners were bound to move. The North was the only choice left because it gave the Southerners the promise of a better life.

However, when this new mass of emigrants flocked to the railway stations of Milan, Turin and Genoa, they were not welcomed. They arrived with their cardboard baggage tied up with twine and their clothes and hands still dirty with dust. They had gone through years and years of poverty, mistreatment and injustice and were not accustomed to the sophistication of the cities. In the eyes of the northerners they were none other than backward peasants, coarse and somewhat laughable. The discrimination went as far as ridiculing the way they looked. The southerners were regarded as dirty, untidy, too short and too black to be real Italians and prone to anarchy and violence. This onslaught of internal racism was all the more unfair as not all the southerners came from farmland. A huge chunk of them were actually from small and big cities and a few of them were highly educated.

But most of the northerners chose not to see that. In some respect they praised themselves as hardworking, modern and law abiding citizens who stood on the right side of progress. For them southerners simply didn’t belong there and were in the wrong place. To further distance themselves northerners began to label them as ‘terroni’.

They didn’t pick that word on a whim. Terra in Italian means ‘earth’, ‘soil’ and also ‘farmland’. The northern Italians used it as an insult to denote that all the southerners did and knew was to work the land. Terroni was a demeaning, belittling nickname that, needless to say, didn’t go down well with the southerners. It was a term that was uttered behind their back or during a fight. To return the favor the Southerners resorted to a derogatory term to define the Northerners - polentoni. The reference was to the fact that the people of the North’s staple was polenta.

It is ironic that the word terroni has now become the brand name of a famous line of restaurants in Toronto.

The film industry

The film industry was swift to capture the rift between northern Italians and southern Italians. Soon new films were made. They were all about this mass migration that started in the 50s and the conflicts and tensions that it brought about. One of the most celebrated movies from this era is Rocco e i suoi Fratelli. The film is a classic and everyone loves it. But if we were to pick a film that hilariously represented that era we would choose Swept Away, (original title- ‘Travolti da un insolito destino in un mare d’agosto’). The film shot in 1974 features two excellent actors: Mariangela Melato playing an arrogant upper class capitalist named Raffaella; and Giancarlo Nannini playing an underclass deckhands on her yacht . The two are vacationing in the Mediterrenean Sea when a storm cast them away on a deserted island on which the two fall madly in love.

Resurgence of discrimination against the Southern Italians

In recent times the word terroni seems to be dying away. Very few dare to utter it in public. However discrimination can always rear its ugly head. Few years ago some ads made news because they discriminated against southerners Italians looking to rent a place.

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