Yesterday I was listening to a choir sing some Renaissance madrigals on the ubiquitous Youtube channel. Among them was a song about how Italy was terribly oppressed in the sixteenth century. The country was exhorted to:
Grasp, grasp, bold one, the righteous sword
To avenge yourself of a thousand other abuses.
Which wouldn’t have been at all interesting were it not that they were singing in Italian, so the lines went:
Strigni, strign’animosa iusto ferro
Che de mill’altre ingiurie fai vendetta
Where vendetta means avenge. It’s funny seeing a word like that stripped of its later associations and sitting at home in its native language. It’s rather like seeing a school photograph with Hitler in it
Vendetta is merely the Italian word for vengeance and comes from the same root as vengeance: vindicare. An odd little aspect of vindicare is that it gave us too words – one virtuous and one vicious – vindicated and vindictive.
If you are vindictive you are nasty and always seeking vengeance, but if you get your revenge you are vindicated and In The Right. This is approximately the same principle as John Harington’s rhyme:
Treason doth never prosper, What’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it Treason.
The vendetta was originally a custom of the Corsicans who so enjoyed the practice that between 1821 and 1852 they shot, stabbed and strangled more than 4,300 people. Luckily there is a word in the OED for what they were. They were keen vendettists.