Friday 6 September 2013

The Owl Jacket

Back when I was writing The Horologicon, there was one word that I desperately wanted to include. But I couldn't because I didn't remember what it was. I could only remember what it meant.

Years ago, I was chatting to an Italian lady and she told me a strange story of Italy. She told me that sometimes, when Italian men bought a suit, they would buy two jackets. One of these jackets was for wearing as you stroll around town drinking delicious espressos and wooing beautiful women and generally being Italian. Meanwhile the other jacket was hanging over the back of your chair at work, so that it looked as though you were in the office.

I loved this tale. I adored the idea of putting such thought into shirking. I dreamed of doing the same sort of thing in rainy London. But what I loved most of all was that there was a particular word for that jacket. There was a word meaning the-jacket-left-hanging-over-the-back-of-your-chair-in-the-office-while-you're-gallivanting-around-town.

That's a good word.

That's a word that I wanted to include in The Horologicon. There's a whole chapter of that book devoted to sneaking out of the office and that word was going to be the centrepiece.

But I couldn't remember what it was.

I went mad. I racked my brain until I could rack no more. I e-mailed every Italian I knew and asked them about it. Every single one of them had heard of the practice of leaving-a-jacket-hanging-over-the-back-of-your-chair-in-the-office-while-you're-gallivanting-around-town. But they all said they'd never heard of a word for it. It was just a thing you did.

And in the end - miserable and humiliated - I was forced to give up.

And then, a couple of days ago, a year after The Horologicon went off to the printers, I got an e-mail from the Inky Fool's correspondent in Rome.

Dear Mark,
Yesterday I was watching a very old fun&depressing-at-the-same-time Italian film and the protagonist suddenly mentioned that jacket you had asked me about a year ago. The famous jacket the Italians leave on the chair in order to pretend to be working while they are out of the office doing all sorts of things. And the name of that jacket is lovely, in my opinion. It is "Giacca civetta" which means "Owl jacket" I believe that generally "civetta" in Italian means, amongst other things, something which can attract and deceive too. But you are the expert of this kind of things, I am only trying to guess. So, after one year, here is your answer.

I don't think I really am an expert on the subtle symbolism of Italian birds, and my correspondent is a native of that fair peninsula, so she should know. However, I will add that it works beautifully in English because owls perch silently in corners. So the jacket perched on your chair is - I pronounce this ex cathedra linguae Anglorum - the Owl Jacket.

I don't know how effective this is if you work at home.


  1. "Years ago, I was chatting to an Italian lady and he told me a strange story of Italy."
    Should that be "she"?

  2. Oh how I'd love to be still working in my old office. I did this all the time (cardigan or sweater or shawl)! Didn't fool too many people, though; but I would have loved to 'name' it!
    Thank you Mark (and friend) for being determined!

  3. The word is used particularly for the Little Owl (Athene's familiar which is known to zoology as Athene noctua ). Other owls have their own names. Apparently the Italians are more likely to use flirtare from the English than civettare for flirts, nowadays.

  4. I loved this story of the lost memory of the jacket and the finding the word for it after all. Interested, I searched and discovered this:

    Da una delle prime trasmissioni della Rai che molto spazio ha dato al cinema, un estratto con protagonista Paolo Villaggio in C'era una volta Fantozzi (1977). Villaggio ci accompagna nei luoghi reali dove lavora il ragioniere Fantozzi alla continua ricerca di evasione da una routine alienante e dei trucchi per trovarla. Qui, Villaggio/Fantozzi ci svela il trucco della “giacca civetta”. - See more at:

    Google-translated it is regarding a scene from one of the famous Fantozzi movies:

    "From one of the first broadcasting of RAI that much space was given to the cinema, an extract starring Paolo Villaggio in Once Upon a Time Fantozzi (1977). Village takes us to the actual places where the accountant works Fantozzi always looking for an escape from routine and alienating the tricks to find it. Here, Village / Fantozzi reveals the trick of the "jacket owl"

  5. Which reminds me of Li Po, who went fishing without any hook or bait, so he could be idle without the risk of being disturbed. There should be a word for that too. There should also be a word for smoking in a bus shelter without any intention of taking the bus.

  6. Apparently civetta is also slang for an unmarked police car.

  7. Also (sorry to carp) the owl in question is the little owl, the symbol of Athene. Your picture is of a pair of laughing owls.

  8. You learn something new everyday! I feel like I must start using the term 'owl jacket' in everyday life, now.

  9. Your "giacca civetta" is required when you want to go flirting around town, which is "civettare".

    1. Isn't the jacket left in the office the "giacca civetta"?

  10. Am I the only person who thinks your jacket in the photo looks like an owl hunched up on it's branch? (The owl seen from behind).

  11. If I might be so bold, I would like to suggest a distaff version of the Owl Jacket, which is that of the Phantom Purse, a purse left on the desk for much the same purpose, although I have generally seen it used to disguise tardy arrivals, not the mislead a supervisor during the day. The phantom purse is left on ones desk the night before (and preferably you would also leave your light switched on and not have logged out from your computer the night before.

  12. I wonder if you could claim that an 'owl jacket' was an Off Without Leave jacket. OWL.

    Along the same lines as AWOL.

  13. this is so cute, owl jacket. Love that.