Why the Italians like Inglish any way they spik it

It is just as well I have a reasonable command of the English language, or else I don't think I would be able to understand the cutting edge of Italian culture these days. Or, to be more precise, despite having what I consider to be a reasonable command of the English language, I am not sure it is possible to penetrate the linguistic mystifications of present-day Italian culture.

No question, English is the hip language of the moment. It is popping up in the media, in advertisements, in film titles, even in the rough and tumble of political debate. One popular newspaper supplement at the moment is called Perfect English - unfortunately something of an idealistic concept in the present climate, but one that has the whole country mesmerised.

"When the going gets tough, the tough get going." That is the pet slogan of Lamberto Dini, the Foreign Minister. Not devastatingly original, but at least he gets the English right. "Hello, honeychop" is what all the teenage sweethearts are whispering to each other, inspired by a television advert for an aftershave called Green Generation, in which a macho hunk listens to endless answer-machine messages from his girlfriends but never calls them back.

"Stip stap" is what the Italian distributor of a nappy-making company thinks the English say as they secure their babies' bottoms with fully absorbent plastic. "Any way he dose, you like". That was one newspaper reporter's version of Mikhail Gorbachev's Sinatra doctrine - letting the countries of the former Eastern bloc do it their way.

Clearly, quite a few of these deformations are due to the quirks of a country with no solid tradition of foreign language-learning. One of last year's film comedy offerings was called Lo No Spik Englisch. But many are the result of a very Italian inventiveness, a cheerful "more-or-less" attitude to life, and a complete lack of fear of experimenting even with another language. The contrast with France, with its paranoia of foreign contamination, is strikingly refreshing. The results range from the comic to the bewildering.

Take newspaper headlines, where it seems the lessons of British tabloid journalism - picking on a handful of key words and repeating them ad nauseam - have been taken enthusiastically to heart, with endless variations on "baby", "story", "lady", "vip" (for VIP), and so on.

The meanings of these terms are ever so slightly out of kilter with what you would expect. "Baby" does not refer to an infant so much as someone unusually young, such as "baby pensionato" for a 45-year-old who has stopped working. "Lady" is used for any politician's wife - not just First Lady but also Lady Prodi, Lady Berlusconi, even Lady Blair.

The word "story" is lobbed at random into any headline which announces a good tale to come. Thus "Baby lady story" might refer to the saga of a seasoned politician who seduced and married a teenager.

The king of headline buzzwords, though, is "killer". Not only are there the inevitable "mafia killer" (spelled without an s even in the plural), "serial killer" and even "baby killer" (meaning an implausibly young person accused of murder). There are animal, vegetable and mineral "killer" too - "mascarpone killer" was a rogue tub of cream cheese that landed two kids from Naples in hospital with botulism poisoning.

What has grown up is not Italian, nor even English, but something that linguists and lexicographers refer to as "near-English" - a new category of language that follows its own rules when non-native speakers attempt to communicate with each other. It is an epidemic sweeping not only across Italy, but through eastern Europe and Asia, too. The sticklers can wave their dog-eared Fowler's Modern English Usage around all they like, but it seems unstoppable.

And who would want to stop it anyway? It's all too much fun. To borrow a funky neologism coined by a headline writer recently (playing on the Italian use of the letter "s" to negate the word that follows), interfering in other people's linguistic games must surely be deemed "politically scorrect".

Andrew Gumbel