Tag Archives: capolavoro

crapolavoro, messterpiece

One of my favourite Italian words is capolavoro. Literally it means ‘head work’ (capo ‘head’ plus lavoro ‘work’) or ‘chief work’ or ‘head of work’ or, more figuratively, ‘top work’. The English equivalent word is masterpiece, but come on, masterpiece is a mutton-and-potatoes kind of word, and capolavoro is cappellini alle vongole.

Originally, in English, a masterpiece was a particularly exquisite piece of work – a lock, for instance, or a cabinet, or whatever you had trained to make – to serve as proof that you were a master of your trade and worthy of guild membership: effectively, a craftsman’s equivalent of a doctoral dissertation. Since then, the term has broadened in use to refer to any utterly exquisite bit of artistic or artisanal work. 

In Italian, the word capolavoro (pronounced ca-po-la-vo-ro, by the way) meant exactly the same thing as masterpiece did originally, and it has expanded to mean the same thing as masterpiece does now. Its etymological bits are different but it is functionally identical, though perhaps more delicious.

But what if your masterpiece is crap? A mess? What if it is, in fact, a masterwork of crappiness? Craptacular? Shambolic? What if you have shown the opposite of a Midas touch? Two words automatically suggest themselves.

One is messterpiece, and you will find it with a Google search – someone has already added it to Urban Dictionary, and it’s also used in some books and other materials for kids (with a slightly more positive angle). You knew it had to exist.

But the other, ah, the other one I am – of course – more fond of. Admittedly, it is what is sometimes called “macaronic”: a blending of two languages. Crap is not an Italian word – English got it from French, which seems to have gotten it from Old Dutch (I must object! Old Dutch potato chips are not crap, as any western Canadian knows!). And capolavoro has not been swiped into English – or not officially yet, anyway. But how can you not like crapolavoro, with its jarring juxtaposition of mellifluous Italian with brutish English and its vaguely abracadabra sound (remember, made from crapo and lavoro, not from crapola and voro, which would probably mean a crapola-vore, i.e., crapola eater)? 

And there are so many things one could apply it to – certain movies come to mind, and definitely some bits of architecture, although which bits will forever be hotly disputed. Books and albums too. But, hey, do you have any examples you’d like to suggest?