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My detractors, and they are legion, have not failed to point out that Machiavelli himself, his contemporaries and indeed the entire Italian tribe to this day all write and spell our man’s first name with an accent on the final vowel, thus: Niccolò.

And they’re right. But throughout my book I have spelled it Niccolo, without the accent.

There is an obvious reason for this. Applying the principle of Occam’s razor, I have opted to lay out, as always, the simplest, the most direct and the most sub-philosophical of explanations. At the time of the writing of this book. I just didn’t know how to do accents in Microsoft Word. Embarrassing, but true.

I figured I could always go back later, do a global search and replace, and fix the problem, but the more I thought about it, the more I began to suspect that inserting that final accent was a fussy, literal-minded affectation.

I am certainly no slouch when it comes to the Italian language and the placement of accents therein. As a board-certified professor of Italian, I had for years drilled accents and other painful and unfamiliar grammatical truths into my students. Here’s a quick primer on the use of accent marks in Italian.

Unlike French, Italian does not use accents to change the pronunciation of a letter, but merely to indicate which syllable of a word receives the emphasis. Ordinarily, about 99% of Italian words have an emphasis on the penultimate syllable, You’re probably familiar with such stereotypical Italian words as spaghetti, macaroni, and pizza, all with the stress on the next to the last syllable.

An accent, always placed only on a vowel, indicates that another syllable in that particular word is stressed and usually that entails a change in meaning. For example, ancora means again or still. Àncora with the accent means anchor. The word porto used as a noun indicates a place where ships dock and unload their goods. Porto is also the 1st person singular of the verb portare, and it means I carry. Portò, however, with the accent, is the third person singular of our verb in the past tense, so it would mean, he, she or it carried. It is pronounced with the stress on the final syllable, not the penultimate.

That’s it in a nutshell. No big deal. Not very complicated unless you have an English language typewriter and keyboard.

So why did I choose not to deploy the accent in Niccolò? Because I was writing in English for an English-speaking readership, and we don’t use accents in English (except for the occasional foreign word--touché).

St Ambrose (Archbishop of Milan, IV century) was famous for reading without moving his lips. Apparently this was considered unusual at the time and probably the work of the devil. I trust that most of my readers today read without moving their lips and spitting out all sorts of plosives and hissing their fricatives. Nor can I conceive of an American or English reader who would pronounce Niccolò, no matter how I wrote it, in any way other than as the equivalent of the familiar English name, Nicholas. With the accent firmly on the first syllable.

So that’s my reasoning. Besides, Machiavelli himself was flexible about his name, often signing his letters and dispatches, written in Latin, as Nichlaus Maclavellus. Poetic license. If you really want to have some fun, try envisioning our hero in a kilt and call him MacIavelli.

Note on accents in MS Word: a practical consideration

To place a letter with an accent in your text, go to the Insert menu at the top of the page. Select Symbol and then Symbol Browser. A box will appear with all the symbols known to man. Scroll down until you find what you want, select it by clicking and it will be inserted into your text wherever you left the insertion point.

You can get a circumflex, a cedilla, a tilde, even a Norwegian o with the cross through it!

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