Salve (sahl-vai), is a strange Italian word indeed.
It is a Latin word — no, it “does not come from” Latin, it actually is Latin! — whose use is attested in Italian in all epochs. The linguists among you may like to know it’s the imperative of the verb salvēre, which means being healthy. So, when we use it we, quite literally, wish our interlocutor to be healthy: salute a te!
The Romans would use it with vale, which means farewell, in the expression vale atque salve, “farewell and be healthy,” but our fellow Italians from the Renaissance used it as we do today.
Salve it’s a strange word, we were saying, because for quite some time people stopped using it: it felt obsolete and it only lived within the dusty pages of 19th century novels. You’d still hear it here and there, but how awkward it was!
But today, salve has been enjoying a bout of unexpected popularity, graciously offered by online etiquette. You see, Italian has a wealth of high register expression to say hello and goodbye — from buongiorno to arrivederci, from buon pomeriggio to buonasera — and, of course, the ubiquitous ciao for all informal occasions. But what about all that’s left in between? What if we don’t want anything too formal, but a “ciao” sounds too easy?
That’s when online interactions come into the picture: the more we’ve been using emails to communicate for work and school, the more we’ve been falling in love with salve, all over again: it’s the perfect middle-of-the-road register salutation, the one you use with a friendly professor, or when DM-ing your phone company’s customer service.
And that’s how salve has come back into fashion.
When it comes to translate it in English, good morning/afternoon/evening remain the safest bet, but “hello” is also a good option!
Salve, ha ricevuto la mia mail di ieri, professore?
Good afternoon, professor: did you receive the email I sent yesterday?
Salve, avrei una domanda da farle: ha un minuto?
Hello, I’d like to ask you something: do you have a minute?
Salve caro, come stai?
Hello, how are you?