Gusto is a foreign term which the English language appears to have borrowed twice:

1620s, "very common from the beginning of the 19th c." [OED], from Italian gusto "taste," from Latin gustus "a tasting," related to gustare "to taste, take a little of." .... English first borrowed the French form, guste "organ of taste; sense of taste" (mid-15c.), but this became obsolete. (Etymonline)

Though the term was actually used from early 1600s only from the beginning of 1800s its usage became popular, and given its main current meaning:

great energy, enthusiasm, and enjoyment that is experienced by someone taking part in an activity, especially a performance. (Cambridge Dictionary)

I wonder if the term gained popularity with the Italian lyric Opera in England which at that time dominated the musical scene in theaters. If not, what may have increased the usage of the term gusto?

  • 2
    Who can tell? What kind of evidence do you think would support your hypothesis or an alternative?
    – David
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 19:07
  • 1
    This seems a bit POB the way that it's phrased. Who can say how something gained popularity? Unless there's a period piece discussing the mindset on it. I think it might be more utile to ask in what realm it gained traction which is sort of how I'm reading your question. Or perhaps whether or not it was always present, but its meaning shifted over time.
    – David M
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 14:57
  • 1
    @user067531 I see your angle and withdraw my objection. I like the question, though. I had already upvoted it.
    – David M
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 15:09
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA - just one more thing...the meaning in English is not the main one “taste” but its extension “enthusiasm and enjoyment”. They actually imported only the expression “con gusto” that has the second connotation.
    – user 66974
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 15:43
  • 2
    Note that gusto is also a Spanish word and that English-Spanish interaction became increasingly common in the 1800s as the United Sates and Latin America came into closer contact. ¡Mucho gusto!
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 17:00

1 Answer 1


Was Gusto Popular?

The NGram data on gusto is borne out by both the Corpus of Historical American English and the Hansard (British parliamentary) Corpus. For instance, here is the results for gusto in Hansard, divided by decade:

enter image description here

Note the first instance after 1850, the growth in usage around 1920, and its resurgence after 1980. Here is COHA:

enter image description here

So the corpus data, broadly speaking, agrees. This shows that gusto did become more popular in English, at least in the 1920s and 1930s, and we also know from the OED that it became more common in its current usage in the early 19th century. What caused either of these spikes?

The Dictionary Explanation - Italian Loanwords

One explanation would place gusto in the same realm as other loanwords from Italian, French, and Spanish during the early modern period. Gusto was included in many early bilingual and trilingual lexicons prepared for people who may travel to Italy, trade with Italians, or read Italian literature. So, like some of these words, gusto may have come into English in a fairly literal meaning and changed from there.

In the search engine Lexicons of Early Modern English, gusto comes up 50 times between the Medulla Grammatice (Pepys MS 2002) (c. 1480) and Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1750). I've selected five samples that show the word in gradual transition from being a translated Italian word meaning taste to a loanword in English meaning excitement:

Gusto on | anglice a Taster // Gusto as | anglice to Taste (MG, c. 1480)

Gusto, as. to taste, to smacke: also to haue a little knowledge or experience in: to attaine to a meane. (Thomas Thomas, Dictionarium Linguae Latinae et Anglicanae, 1587)

Gust or Gusto, a right Relish, Savour, or true Taste of any thing. A Delicious Gusto, Wines, Fruits, or Meats of a curious or pleasant Taste. A Gust of Wind, a short, sudden, furious Blast, as we say a Dash of Rain, for a sudden, short, impetuous Beat of Rain.(B. E., A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, 1699)

GU'STO, It. 1. A relish, favour, or taste of any thing, the power by which any thing excites sensations in the palate. Pleasant gusto's. Derham. 2. Intellectual taste or liking. Let them bring no particu­lar gusts along with them. Dryden. (Joseph Nicol Scott, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, 1755)

GU’STO. n. s. [Italian.] 1. The relish of any thing; the power by which any thing excites sensations in the palate. Pleasant gustos gratify the appetite of the luxurious. Derh. 2. Intellectual taste; liking. In reading what I have written, let them bring no particular gusto along with them. Dryden. (Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755)

So eighteenth century dictionaries pick up on gusto as an English word, and the meaning is expanding to include not just taste or even intellectual preference but a kind of pleasure or excitement derived from one of them. So later developments in English gusto would most likely occur in the shadow of English usage, generalizing over time from taste to experience on a similar track as relish and zest.

Was There a Single Moment When Gusto Changed?

Probably not. In most cases it is difficult to trace words to a single influential usage. (Not all words are invented or adapted by a Chaucer, a Shakespeare, or a King James Bible.) Rather, gusto most likely crept into the usage denoted "very common from the beginning of the 19th cent" in the OED:

  1. Keen relish or enjoyment displayed in speech or action; zest.

For instance, note the gap between these four quotes in the OED:

1693 W. Congreve Old Batchelour i. i. 3 It adds a Gusto to an Amour.

1727 A. Hamilton New Acct. E. Indies I. p. xiv The Taste of those Times relished all he presented with a very good Gusto.

1808 W. Scott Let. 19 Nov. (1932) II. 131 We have been both dining and supping upon them [sc. herrings] with great gusto.

1866 ‘G. Eliot’ Felix Holt II. xxxi. 258 The second Tory joke was performed with much gusto.

So in 58 years the examples jump from gusto relating to food (herrings? OK) to comedic performance. Yet we also have examples of gusto referring to love in William Congreve, and that's over a century before Scott or Eliot. So even if we restricted ourselves to looking at popular writing from the late 18th century to mid 19th century for some single usage that explains why gusto changed, that's a lot of time and a lot of texts to look through.

Even if we restrict ourselves to a single genre of influence, like opera, we will find results in a database like Eighteenth Century Collections Online pointing to operas in print. However, we will also find references to other Italian literature, like the epic romance Orlando Furioso by Ariosto:

L'aver avuto in poesia buon gusto,

La proscrizione iniqua gli perdona.

(But [Augustus's] good taste in poetry compensates for the evil of his proscriptions) (OF Canto 35, stanza 26, found on Google Books in an 1826 edition)

In the search results on ECCO I also see results for Torquato Tasso (another widely-read author, esp. of Gerusalemme Liberata), a life of Lorenzo de' Medici by William Rosco, writings from travelers like Robert Southey (who is writing about Spain and Portugal), and so on. A negative cannot definitively be proven, but the non-uniqueness of source thwarts an easy explanation of why gusto became popular.

  • 2
    Great answer. I note that gusto appears figuratively in the "enthusiasm" sense at least as early as 1825: "thousands will swallow his impeachment with gusto, who have no relish for his vindication" (Hobart [Tasmania] Town Gazette and Van Dieman's Land Advertiser, January 14, 1825); "and describe them [the features of the surrounding country] himself not only with gusto, but with positive confidence in the reality and truth of his terms" (Launceston [Tasmania] Advertiser, August 27, 1835); "The General then read the letter with gusto" (Richmond [Virginia] Advertiser, April 11, 1839).
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 21:55

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.