My chickens do not usually come home to roost so rapidly. Only a fortnight ago I wrote that ‘some people use basta in English, but to my ears it sounds like saying ciao — inauthentic’. Then I went back to reading Jane Ridley’s Bertie, the life of Edward VII (and how much I enjoyed it too). What should I find on page 357? I found Queen Alexandra writing about what she would wear at the coronation in 1901. ‘I know better than all the milliners and antiquaries,’ she wrote. ‘I shall wear exactly what I like, and so shall all my ladies — Basta!’
I can hardly accuse a queen of England of speaking the King’s English inauthentically. But I wonder where she picked up basta. You might point out that Shakespeare had used it. That was in The Taming of the Shrew, where Lucentio says: ‘Basta, content thee.’ But the play is, after all, set in Padua. The funny thing is that the Oxford English Dictionary calls the interjection ‘obsolete’. That is because it has not got round to revising the entry for the word from the first edition, which, since basta begins with B, means 1885.
After Shakespeare, it is recorded in a play by Richard Brome called The Court Beggar, which I have not read, and, really, don’t suppose I ever shall. Its learned modern editor, Marion O’Connor, convinces me it was finished around 1640. The action is set in London, so I cannot appeal to local colour. Thereafter, only one occurrence of basta is recorded by the OED, in the historicising Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, where it is put in the mouth of Wamba the jester, who is meant to be Saxon, I think, though his name is that of a Visigothic king in Spain.
Queen Alexandra, like Hamlet, was Danish, and she did not make a habit of visiting Italy. Shakespeare and Italian opera she must have known, though not so well as her stage-struck husband.
As for ciao, the clever men at Oxford caught up with it in 1989 when they noted that it was ‘affected as a fashionable expression by English speakers’. Indeed. Yet I shall probably find it on the lips of Queen Victoria next week.
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