The death, on April 30, of the American photographer Ron Galella brought the fun-to-say Italian borrowing paparazzo back into the news. Galella, who was 91, was a “paparazzo extraordinaire,” the Telegraph and the Guardian headlined. “He personified the paparazzi,” the New York Times obituary reported, using the plural form: “brazen and relentless in chasing the famous, particularly Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.”
Galella himself proudly accepted the title of “paparazzo extraordinaire,” appropriating it for the title of his 2012 memoir.
Advertisement for a 2012 book-signing event for Ron Galella: Paparazzo Extraordinaire via New York Gossip Gal.
Paparazzo is one of those useful words that seems to have been around forever, maybe from some Latin source. In fact, though, it made its debut in Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita, as the surname of a character who’s an overeager news photographer. By the following year the name had been genericized to signify any aggressive freelance photographer, almost always a man, and especially one who pursues celebrities.
Exactly how Fellini came to use “Paparazzo” as the character’s name has been extensively debated. Here’s the OED’s take:
The selection of the name Paparazzo (which occurs as a surname in Italy) for the character in Fellini’s film has been variously explained. According to Fellini himself, the name was taken from an opera libretto; the comment is also attributed to him that the word ‘suggests..a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging’. It also occurs as the name of an Italian hotel proprietor in G. Gissing By the Ionian Sea (1901), which appeared in Italian translation in 1957 and has been cited as an inspiration by E. Flaiano, who contributed to the film’s scenario. (For further possible expressive connotations of the name, it has also been noted that in the Italian dialect of Abruzzi, where Flaiano came from, paparazzo occurs as a word for a clam, which could be taken as suggesting a metaphor for the opening and closing of a camera lens; the Italian suffix -azzo (variant of -accio < classical Latin -āceus : see -aceous suffix) also has pejorative connotations.)
The word seemed especially apt for Galella, who had Italian roots himself—his father was an Italian immigrant, his mother an Italian-American from New Jersey—and whose “hovering, darting, stinging” approach landed him in court, and on the receiving end of punches from aggrieved targets, more than once.
In the UK, where the existence of actual royals gives ambitious and brazen freelancers an extra incentive, paparazzi has been used so frequently in the press that it gave rise to an abbreviation, pap. The OED’s earliest citation for this sense of pap is from 1988 (“slang, chiefly British”). English celebrity photographer Ray Bellisario—another son of Italian immigrants—claimed to hate being labeled a paparazzo; nevertheless, his 2018 obituary in the Guardian noted “the notoriety he gained as the first British ‘pap’, documenting the activities of the royals in a period when newspaper photographers were expected to show due deference.” Pap is also popular in English-language publications in India and Pakistan.
Pap has even been turned into a verb, usually in the passive voice: “to be photographed by a paparazzo.” The OED notes that this usage is also “chiefly British”; its earliest citation is from a 1993 story in the Telegraph: “The Swedish crown princess, who is 16 and has ‘never been papped’, comes cheap.”
Although paparazzo and paparazzi are well ensconced in American English, pap has been slower to catch on. Maybe the connotations of “Pap smear” and “tasteless pap” are too much of a hurdle to overcome. (Pap is also an old pejorative synonym for “breast.”) I was therefore surprised to discover the headline “You Know Celebrities Stage Their Own Pap Shots, Right?” over a March 2020 story in the American edition of Cosmopolitan. The author, Mehera Bonner, appears to be American—she lives in Brooklyn, anyway—but someone else (a British expat?) may have been responsible for the headline. Still, I can’t help seeing it as an opening gambit in the transatlantic pap traffic. I’m counting on Ben Yagoda of Not One-Off Britishisms and Lynne Murphy of Separated by a Common Language to do a full investigation.