Daily Archives: March 15, 2010

pasticcio, pastiche

I remember very clearly my first part in a mainstage production as a university drama student. The play was Sheridan’s The Critic, of 1779. I strode on as an Italian gentleman of the time, accompanied by a daughter whose singing I wished to promote and by an interpreter, and declared briskly to the English lady of the house, “Ah, vossignoria, noi vi preghiamo di favorirci colla vostra protezione.” The interpreter leapt in to ease communication: “Madame, me interpret. C’est à dire – in English – qu’ils vous prient de leur faire l’honneur –” This macaronic mash-up, of course, didn’t help the poor lady at all.

My character’s name? Pasticcio Ritornello. Rather fitting, naturally, given the linguistic pasticcio accompanying him. If language were the food of love, this scene would be, well, a pasticcio, perhaps: a pie made of a mixture of meat and pasta. Or pastistio, which is the Greek version of the same thing (no crust, just pasta, meat, tomatoes, and white sauce). One could wash it down with a glass of pastis (ouzo to the Greeks among us). Or drink the pastis as an appetizer – as Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, “what’s pastis prologue.”

Of course, pasticcio and pastiche – one might call them my character’s version and the interpreter’s version of the same word – are more often used to refer to an assemblage of disparate elements, a paste-up job, as it were (en français on dirait une collage). And how fitting that is! Paste comes from pasta, meaning “dough” and then later “noodles” (you did know that noodles are made from a tough dough, didn’t you?); it in turn comes from a Greek word for porridge. Pasticcio comes not from pasta as in noodles (though pasticcio contains them) but directly from the Latin pasticium “pie, pastry”, also from pasta of course. Pastiche comes from pasticcio, and both of them spread to things in music and art that have divers ingredients, pasted, stitched, or stuck together. The same past root also made its way into French as a word for “hodgepodge, mess”: pastis. That word was applied to a beverage that, though clear, turns murky white when water is added: ouzo, sambuca… pastis.

These days, pastiche and pasticcio seem to be things of the past; the preferred term currently is the rather lumpy Anglo-Saxon mash-up. It does happen to be the case that mash was first of all a word for the mixture of water and barley malt used in brewing, so we have come full circle to the barley recognizable origins. But when it comes to linguistic medleys, I prefer a term drawn from a a dish made with a type of hollow pasta, which in turn may originally have taken its name from a Greek word for barley broth. The pasta and the dish (which is the pasta plus butter and cheese) are called macaroni (or maccheroni or a few other spellings), and a mixture of languages – as one finds in some medieval music, where Latin and the local vernacular are mixed – is described as macaronic.

Thanks to Elaine Phillips for suggesting pastiche.