Daily Archives: May 17, 2010


You probably don’t know the meaning of this word – it’s not very common. So tell me: what effect does it have on you before I say what it means? It makes me think of velleity (a whim, a wish, an inclination) and Elise Velle, whose singing can send little frissons down the spine. But of course there are other things that may more commonly come to mind: vellum (crackling material to prick and tickle with your pen), jelly (which shivers and twitches), villain (who may make you shudder or simply irritate you), maybe lick and tickle – and perhaps even a hint of the horripilation that such things may produce.

Ah, horripilation: the hair stands on end. You see it in this word: the lli – ooh, that i looks like someone’s plucked one. Imagine! Imagine someone sneaking up behind you, running a feather down the back of your neck – and plucking a hair that happened to stand up! Would that not make you twitch a bit?

The connection, apparently, seems natural enough – or anyway used to. This word comes from Latin vellicare, the frequentative of vellere, which meant, as OED puts it, “pull, pluck, twitch, etc.” So its English senses started with “prick” and “irritate” and the related “pull” and “pinch” (the shapes of the v and ll seem to play with that sense as well); from there it readily proceeded to “twitch” and “cause to twitch” (all these senses are still at least somewhat current). And “tickle” and “titillate” proceed from that, it seems; we see Erasmus Darwin writing, in 1794, “So when children expect to be tickled in play . . . by gently vellicating the soles of their feet, laughter is most vehemently excited.”

Now, tell me, does that description not vellicate you, one way or the other? The dryness with which the classic childish activity is described may irritate you, make you twitch, or tickle you entirely. Try this next time you’re having an intimate phone conversation: say “I’m gently vellicating the soles of your feet.” See whether it doesn’t produce a frisson (or, indeed, most vehemently excite laughter). Do you have the pluck to do it?


“Hey, Joe, come vai? Whatcha eating there?”


“Joe, Joe, swallow it first. Don’t talk with your mouth full. You sound like Marlon Brando playing a Sicilian. Now what is it?”

“Muffuletta!” Joe holds out a big round sandwich wrapped in paper. “Muffuletta for you!”

“Muffuletta for me? Hey! Muffuletta for you!”

So, OK, where are these two jokers? Let’s just say they’re at Central Grocery. Where, in New Jersey somewhere? No, in New Orleans. Of course, you can get muffuletta elsewhere, but that’s where the muffuletta sandwich was invented about a century ago.

Now, for the sake of accuracy, I should say that muffuletta is really the name of the loaf, a flattish round Sicilian loaf of bread. When you slice it through the equator, add olive salad, then capicola, salami, mortadella, emmentaler, and provolone to the bottom half and put the top half back on, you have what was originally called a muffuletta sandwich. But now it’s typically called just by the name of the loaf.

So does a muffuletta sound like a lotta mouthfuls? Well, it is. The loaf is about 10 inches across. You can feed more than one person with a muffuletta sandwich (but rest assured there are many people who will eat a whole one – like the farmers who came to New Orleans for the market and went to Central Grocery to get bread, cheese, and antipasto, and then ate them separately balancing them on their knees until the store owner, Salvatore Lupo, said why not eat them together). The word itself seems pretty stuffed too – it’s a meal with two loaf halves u and u and the cheese ff and meat tt (or is it the other way around?).

And it persists in the great tradition of Italian food names: it’s not too short; it has double letters; it sounds to English ears maybe a little rude (compare focaccia, for instance); and it’s subject to multiple (mis)spellings and (mis)pronunciations (compare focaccia and many others for the former and bruschetta, gnocchi, and various others for the latter). You will hear people say it as “muff a lotta”, for instance, rather than the “moo foo let ta” that it originally is. And of course you can imagine how many different ways it gets written.

But it’s hard to be pedantic when the loaf in its native Sicily has various variations according to the dialect: muffuletta, mufuletta, muffiletta, mufiletta, muffulettu, muffuletu, muffulittuni… Well, one thing you know for sure: it’s no muffin, and you don’t see no lettuce in it neither. And to yous in Quebec: don’t wear your moufles when eating it. You’ll just get olive oil on them.

But to any muffled eater, one thing’s for sure: it beats a mofette.