Vn piccolo passo auanti

Prôuánô, a proouer, a tryer. Also to be prooued or tryed. Also obstinate, stiffe-necked.

From Florio’s 1611 Italian-English dictionary

As I explore Florio’s dictionary, one thing (of several) that makes it a challenge is the usage of the letters u and v, which isn’t the same as the usage today. You can see that both in the title of the this post (“Vn piccolo passo auanti” = Un piccolo passo avanti) and in the definition above for prouano = provano. The Oxford English Dictionary blog has this to say:

u and v were graphic variants of a single letter. The form v was used at the beginning of a word and u in all other positions, irrespective of whether the sound was a vowel or a consonant.
Source: OED blog

Unfortunately, nothing is ever that simple when it comes to language. Here are a few more examples from Florio, where I have underlined the letters that are contrary to the OED’s characterization:

  1. A uísô a vísô, face to face, ouer against.
  2. Vntô’sô, unctuous, fattie, oilie, greasie or buttery. Also smooth and glib.
  3. Frugivórô, a deuourer of fruite or corne.
  4. Dámmi, give me.

In (1) and (2) we have u used at the beginning of a word instead v (uiso = viso, and unctuous), while in (3) and (4) we have v used in the middle of a word instead of u (frugivoro, and give).

While I can (mostly) figure out the English based on what I know about English words, Italian is harder, especially the Early Modern Italian with a lot of words I don’t know. (Actually, I didn’t know frugivore in English, either, did you?) After looking at a few examples, I decided to write a program that converts the early us and vs to our contemporary equivalents, in other words, so that u represents a vowel (or part of a diphthong — more on that below) and v represents a consonant. How hard could it be?

Trickier than I thought at first, though not as bad as English. If you see value in Early Modern English, you can’t tell whether it is value or valve except by context. I haven’t found any examples like that, of typographical ambiguity, in Florio. There might be some that I haven’t noticed, of course.

Some things are easy. For example, if v comes before a consonant, then it is the vowel u (as in vnun). Similarly, u after a consonant is also the vowel (as in buono “good” where u is the w of the diphthong wo).

OK, here’s a bit of the trickiness for word-internal u.

  1. u before a consonant is the vowel u
  2. u following a consonant and before a vowel is the vowel u EXCEPT
    • when the consonant is l or r which is preceded by a vowel and the u is followed by vowel other than u, like saluia = salvia “sage” (herb)
  3. uu between two vowels is the doubled consonant v
  4. u between two vowels is the consonant v EXCEPT
    1. when the u is part of the suffix -uol- like affittaiuolo “renter”
    2. a small set of words with the stem douan “customs house”, like Dôuána, _as_ Dôgána
  5. Some other exceptions, like suuotaresvuotare “to empty”

In 4.1, the suffix -uólo roughly “one who does/is associated with” is part of a larger pattern (I think) where uo is pronounced wo where an o in the original Latin was stressed. buono is another example.

In 4.2, douana seems to be a dialect word (Florio says to see dogana  which is the current standard word for customs house). Both are cognate with French douane “customs”, which was my clue to the vowel nature of u. The Italian Wiktionary [accessed 2020-07-29] seems to claim that the u was a consonant, giving dovana, but I don’t think that is correct:

dovana as variant of dogana in Italian Wiktionary


And here’s a bit of the trickiness for word-initial v.

  1. If v is followed by ae, or i, then it is the consonant v.
  2. If v is followed by o, then it is the consonant v, EXCEPT
    • for a small number of exceptions, like vououovo “egg”
  3. If v is followed by u, then it is the consonant v, EXCEPT
    1. Some cases where it is silent, in words similar to the exceptions in (2), like vuouauovo “egg” 
    2. A few words with the same stem for “grape” where is is the vowel u: vuosouvoso “grapey”

In 3.1,  I’m not sure that the initial v is silent, but no other dictionaries have v-initial forms. However, since Florio has various dialectal forms, I don’t really know. But since my goal is to be able to search for words easily, having the contemporary spelling is what matters — I can always search or look at the original spelling if I want.

In 3.2, the stem is vua, but since Florio usually provides accents with vowels to indicate stress, it’s v´ua, where the following accent tips us off that the v is a vowel. Then by rule 4 for u, the u before the a must be a consonant, since it is between two vowels. This gives us the modern spelling uva “grape.”

In working on this, I have to say that my impatient self won out over my linguist self: my linguist self would have liked to find more patterns (like the Latin stressed o becoming uo [wo]), and reduce the number of exceptions, but my impatient self said “Oh get on with it, just have a few special cases for the exceptions, some more general than others.”

As it turns out, it’s a good thing I wrote this up, since I found a few problems in my first version of the converter. And I’m sure there are more.

I’m also sure you are wondering whether this conversion is really worth the effort. Well, of the entries that have a definition (bisarcipoltroncionacciosissimo does not, if you recall), about 31.5% (22311 / 70889) have a u or a v  in the word. So I definitely think it’s worth the effort.

Vn piccolo passo auanti “A small step forward”

OK, I think it’s time to stop sôprauagáresopravagare [but you figured that out] = “to wander more then needeth …” [vagare = “to wander”, and sopra-, well it has itself wandered in its meanings]


You be the judge about the appropriateness of the beginning citation of prouano.


Yes, this is what I was foreshadowing that older post.


Oops, can’t help myself about that sopravagare,



First of all, as always, a huge thanks to Greg Lindahl for leading the effort to type in Florio’s dictionary. Without his work, I could not play.

Thanks again also to Elena Chiocchetti for going above and beyond in looking into uo/wo. I’ve only scratched the surface here.

Also, I have made lots of use of two great online resources:

  • Academia della Crusca historical dictionaries [their first one is from 1612 just after the second edition of Florio’s dictionary, and he considered them rivals, spurring him on to expand his first edition]
  • Treccani (monolingual) dictionary of contemporary Italian with etymological notes