Tag Archives: macaroni

A macaronic feather in our cap

Originally published in The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Canada’s national editorial association

English is gloriously macaronic.

I don’t mean that it’s like a big bowl of elbow noodles, not exactly. But I also don’t mean that it’s like a macaron – well, maybe I do, but that’s not the word means. Macaronic, linguistically, refers to something that’s a mixture of languages. Macaronic poetry, for instance, may switch from English to Latin – some well-known Christmas carols do this (anything containing the words in excelsis, for starts). More broadly, macaronic refers to something that’s a jumble of things. Macaronic architecture, for instance, is exemplified by the heedless stylistic promiscuity of the McMansion style. English is macaronic: it’s made up of an almost hyperreal mixture of words from different languages. And it’s full of macaronic words, too.

A macaronic word is one that combines parts from multiple languages. The word hyperreal, for instance, uses hyper, which we took from Greek, and real, which comes from Latin (via French). And, fittingly, McMansion mixes Gaelic and Latin sources. This may seem like mixing Lego and Meccano – inadvisable or at least somehow improper. But we do it all the time, and not just with the usual classical parts. In fact, any new term that enters common usage has a pretty good chance of being an assemblage of pieces every bit as cosmopolitan as a modern city. To illustrate, let’s look at a few entries added in 2017 to Merriam-Webster dictionaries:

  • froyo: from frozen, an old Germanic word, and yogurt, taken from Turkish
  • Internet of Things: Internet is Latin inter plus Germanic net, and of and Things are also Germanic
  • ransomware: ransom, by way of French from Latin redemptio, plus ware, an old Germanic word
  • pregame: Latin pre plus Germanic game
  • photobomb: Greek photo ‘light’ plus bomb, which comes from French bombe, which comes from Spanish bomba, which comes from Latin bombus, which refers to a buzzing or booming noise and is also the source of boom
  • airball: air, ultimately from Latin by way of French, plus ball, Germanic
  • EpiPen: the Epi is in this instance short for epinephrine but, either way, is a prefix taken from Greek; Pen traces back to Latin penna, ‘feather’
  • weak sauce: From weak, which is Old Norse in origin, and sauce, which comes from French, tracing ultimately to Latin salsus ‘salted’ (which is also the source of salad)
  • alt-right: from alternate, which comes from Latin, and right, which is Germanic (so much for their “purity”)

Macaroni? The effects are more like the sandwiching of cream between meringues in a macaron. And as with our words, so with our sentences. Nearly every sentence in this article liberally mixes Germanic and Romance (Latin/French) words, plus some Greek (sometimes by way of Latin) and occasionally something else too. I think it’s delicious.

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.