My friend Michelle wondered aloud to me, “Why is the word meatball so funny?”
I’m inclined to think the answer lies in large part in its combination of two words often used in humour, especially rather impolite humour, and sometimes in terms of abuse – meathead is a well-known example of the latter. As well, meat and ball are both basic things, learned early in life, free of any veneer of politeness (except in alternative usages, e.g., society balls, ballrooms, etc., which are etymologically unrelated – but even there the simple basic image and sense lurk in the background, as we see in the comedy shows done to benefit Amnesty International, The Secret Policeman’s Ball and The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball).
Meat gives an image of a dense, red lump of muscle, or perhaps of an equally dense brown bit of cooked food, not brain food but brawn food. Actually, the word meat originally referred to pretty much any food, and its sense narrowed over the centuries to the main attraction of the meal, that bit of insensate but strangely desirable dead animal that all the other bits attend on (does this sound like your workplace?). It also shows up places such as meathook (slang for hand), meat market (slang for that bar across the street from us, you know who you are), meathead, meat-eater, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, bush meat, red meat…
Ball can be a simple sphere, used for playing games, or it can be a conglomerate of items packed densely and probably messily together, or some formerly flat thing rolled or crumpled in a not-necessarily-tidy approximation of a sphere, or any of a number of things that happen to resemble spheres in some way, I’m sure a few come to mind. Balls are blunt things, projectiles, insensate objects. You’ll see ball in such combos as ball boy, ball handler, ball of wax, ball peen, be on the ball, play ball, keep your eye on the ball, blackball, butterball, cannonball, disco ball, eyeball, highball, pinball, snowball, spitball, the names of several sports, and various expressions referring figuratively to the testes.
So all of that is balled up, complete with seasoning and filler, into meatball. The seasoning includes a few popular culture references, chief among which the 1979 summer camp movie Meatballs, which was the first movie starring Bill Murray, and the popular children’s book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The flavour also includes the sound: coming in on /m/ with the lips together like a pitcher reader to throw, adding the quick /i/ like a windup, cocking at /t/ and percussively releasing with /b/, and flying through the air and trailing off with /ɑl/. It’s a word just made to be shouted by a sports announcer through a PA – or by a boy on a playground.
Meatballs, the real things, are not (especially not under that name) thought of as highbrow cuisine. Take a bunch of thoroughly ravaged ex-animal and wad it up as you would something undesirable? No, this isn’t fancy cuisine, it’s just cuisine that people practically everywhere love to eat. In world cuisine, there are many kinds of meatballs, with many flavours and sizes, and having many different names in the various languages.
In the US, the dominant image is of the meatballs that one gets with spaghetti: large-ish ones with Italian herbs and spices – probably a jar mix – floating in tomato sauce – probably from a jar or can – and sometimes shoved into long bread in possibly the single most awkward sub sandwich idea ever.
Anyone who lives near an IKEA (including, of course, the entire population of Sweden, along with all the other places that look like Sweden, notably Canada) may be more likely to think of the smaller, differently spiced Swedish variety, often served with a cream sauce and/or lingonberry sauce, and potatoes rather than pasta. (See www.flickr.com/photos/sesquiotic/14340519212/ for a genuine southern Swedish smörgåsbord, already more than half eaten. You will notice that the meatballs were made in greater quantity than anything else.)
Still other people may think first of one of the many variations of kofta/kofteh/etc. eaten in the periphery of the Mediterranean and parts eastward. But it might seem vulgar to call those meatballs. It’s too familiar a word and suggests that this exotic discovery you are eating at the charming restaurant in that strip mall you usually don’t venture near is really something quite homey. Which, of course, for the people for whom it is not exotic, it is.
What meatballs are best? What are the most authentic? What kind should you eat? Is it OK to find meatball funny? An answer to these questions and more is provided by the film Meatballs: