I had a panini for lunch today, which, as always, set me thinking about grammar.

You’re probably thinking “Oh! Because panini comes from Italian, where it’s a plural, and panino is the singular!” You may also be thinking “He used panini as a singular. What an ignoramus.”

In fact, panini makes me think about grammar because of Panini – which is more properly written Pāṇini (which means the “ah” takes twice as long to say as it otherwise would, and the first n is said with the tongue tip farther back in the mouth; also, since it’s not written with a Ph, the P is closer to an English “b”). He was a Sanskrit grammarian; he lived in India sometime before the Buddha was born (and thus also sometime before Socrates and everyone after that), probably around the 6th century BCE. You could almost say he was the Sanskrit grammarian, though others came after. Panini wrote the authoritative manual on Sanskrit grammar. It is a concise work, effectively an algorithm. It’s an exercise in figuring out a natural phenomenon, and at the same time it’s what computer dorks might call an API (basically a set of instructions on how to make a certain kind of thing work). He observed something, figured out as best he could how it worked, and set down as elegant a description of it as he could, which thereby became a means of standardizing its production in formal contexts. I don’t want to go on too long here; this article on him is worth your 5 minutes to learn more.

Do I think of him every time I see panini because I’m a pretentious self-regarding twerp who is mighty pleased with himself for knowing something to do with Sanskrit? Of course not. I mean, I am a pretentious etc., but the reason I think of him every time is that I knew Panini as his name for years before I ever saw it as a name of a food item. I learned about him in university in the mid-1980s; paninis (or panini, if you prefer) didn’t encroach on my sphere of existence until the late 1980s or early 1990s. Our firstborn impressions of a lexeme have birthright: they get the full baby albums and all the brand new toys and clothes. The later impressions get the hand-me-downs.

So. First the Sanskrit, then the sandwich. When it showed up in North America, the average Anglophone saw panini and took it for the singular. People who know some Italian say “No, panino is the singular,” but they might as well be saying “No, it’s Panini’s monster. Panini is the one who created it.” Ask yourself how often you see biscotto or graffito. Even I, who know enough Italian to pass a graduate proficiency test in it (it was one of my two for my PhD, the other being French), seldom make a point of using the Italian singular. It would almost be like asking for a wedgie instead of a sandwich.

Look, Panini saw grammar as a means to understanding the divine, and thus perhaps good grammar as next to godliness, but he still worked with the data he had before him in the state it was in. He didn’t, for example, try to reverse sandhi. And I won’t try to reverse the sandwich. In Italian, after all, panino just means ‘small bread’ or ‘bread-ette’ and that’s often all they mean when they say it (though they can mean the sandwich too). If you’re going to be a purist, get that meat and cheese out of it.

And if you think someone who takes a word that is one thing grammatically in the source language and makes it another thing grammatically in English is an ignoramus, allow me to remind you that ignoramus is, in Latin, a verb in the first-person plural indicative, meaning ‘we don’t know’ (it comes to us by way of a character named Ignoramus in a 17th-century play of the same name). And you have just used it as a singular noun, sans critique. You’ll have to eat your words.

4 responses to “panini

  1. I appreciate this essay, and as a person whose first languages were English and Italian, I readily admit that hearing the phrases “a panini” or “a biscotti” result in an immediate nails-on-a-chalkboard dissonance for me. That said, I hope friends will back me up when I assert that, despite my willingness to share with them (bore them with?) my own personal experience of screeching grammatical irritation, I’ve largely accepted that these words have been manhandled thusly by the Anglophone world and that I must strive for some measure of acceptance. I still perform some mild linguistic gymnastics to avoid actually uttering these Panini’s monsters (“I’ll have that sandwich please”) but I mostly keep my winces internal when those around me order their singular ham-and-cheese panini.*

    One potential quibble though: it’s true that the original Italian meaning of panino is “small loaf of bread”, but while the sandwich meaning must have come later, the word certainly carries both meanings on its own. When Italians call a sandwich un panino, they’re referring to the whole concoction and not just the bread. It’s true that, technically speaking, a sandwich can be called un panino imbottito or un panino farcito (a stuffed small loaf of bread), but (to me at least) that comes across as a belt-and-suspenders repetition of the obvious rather than an insistence on linguistically precise terminology.

    * I admit that even typing that phrase was challenging for me.

  2. Pingback: Link love: language (69) | Sentence first

  3. I do not know many languages but have had minor brushes with French and Russian at certain points in my life. I was made to cram all the ‘sutras’ of Panini’s Ashtadhyayi in my childhood, much as I hated it. But in hindsight, I have never come across anything more devastatingly beautiful and cryptic, one that opens up the riches of a spectacular language that Sanskrit is, or was.

  4. Regarding “good grammar as next to godliness”: I think that an English professor I had, Richard Mitchell (the Underground Grammarian), would have agreed. He wrote about education and careful thought and how to know the good. (His works are preserved online at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s