The Strange History of Pepperoni

Hi there! Would you like a pepperoni pizza? Of course you would! Well, here you go…


Wait, that’s not what you wanted? Really!?

Oh, wait, you probably wanted something like this…


Of course you did! That’s a pepperoni pizza after all! Now how could I make such an obvious mistake like that? Well, let me tell you…

You might reasonably assume that the word pepperoni, like pizza, is an Italian word. It is, however, very much an English word. American English, more than likely. The word came about in the United States some time in the late 19th or early 20th century, referring to a particular Italian-American type of salami. No one’s quite sure where the name came from, but it’s more than likely derived from the small, hot chili peppers used to flavour the sausage, known in Italian as peperoncini. Obviously at some point someone got confused as to whether the word referred to the chillis or the sausage itself, and the name pepperoni stuck.

Understandable enough, but our use of the word pepperoni can be quite annoying to Italians, because not only is pepperoni not an Italian word, but peperoni is, and means peppers, as in bell peppers. So if you were to ask for a pepperoni pizza in Italy, there’s a good chance you might be served a pizza with peppers, as above. If you’re planning on heading to Italy soon and fancy some pizza (I hear it’s pretty good there), the closest thing to a pepperoni pizza would be pizza al salame (yes, that E is correct, it’s the singular form of the word, with salami being plural). In fact, we have an odd tendency to use Italian plural words for foods as singular nouns, now that I think about it. Panini, for example, which in Italian is the plural form of panino (sandwich). I think in the case of salami and panini at least, we prefer the sound of those as it’s not common in English to end a multisyllabic word with an “ay” or “o” sound, as in the original Italian singular forms.

Still, as much as we might mangle the Italian language in our quest for delicious late-night drunk food or handy lunches for the on-the-go businessperson, there is one common case where we tend to get using the singular or plural form right. It’s just not related to food. The word paparazzi is generally used correctly as a plural noun, referring to some or all tabloid photographers. The singular form is indeed paparazzo, and comes from the 1960 film La Dolce Vita, which features an annoying photographer named Paparazzo (chosen by director Federico Fellini as it reminded him of the annoying sound of insects).

It’s not so surprising that we don’t treat words from other languages carefully when we bring them into English. We tend to be fairly monolingual, so we’re not always going to consider the original meanings of the words we borrow. And it’s not as though I’m suggesting you only order salami pizzas from now on. Pepperoni is a fully-fledged English word, and pepperoni pizza has a nice ring to it. Just don’t try to impress an actual Italian person by telling them how much you love deep-pan pepperoni pizza.

20 thoughts on “The Strange History of Pepperoni

  1. So how about all the Italian types of coffee that we see everywhere? Those are Italian words ending in ‘o’ that we’re certainly quite comfortable with – cappuccino, macchiato, Americano… As English folk, we all put an ‘s’ on the end when ordering multiple cappuccinos – should it be ‘cappuccin-i-‘? Hmmmm…

    Interesting read about pepperoni though – I never would have guessed 🙂 It’s funny how there always seems to be some sort of subtle distinction when buying these cured meats in the shops though – salami and pepperoni are usually labelled as different items, though really I’d imagine they’re much the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The plural is “cappucini” in Italian, though as we’re using “cappucino” as an English word, adding the S is fine. Like how we say “pizzas” and not “pizze.”
      I think strictly pepperoni is supposed to be a hotter variety of salami, though I think we tend to just use whichever word we prefer!

      Liked by 1 person

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