You might know the song “Yankee Doodle,” even if you’re not American. One line might sound a little strange to you:
Stuck a feather in his cap, and called it macaroni.
I won’t claim that this is something that’s bothered me all my life. I noticed it of course, as a child, but never really thought much about it. I was quite used to nonsense in nursery rhymes and songs, and I think I understood that sometimes song lyrics making sense had to come second to lines rhyming or having a good rhythm.
That being said though, there is a logic to the use of macaroni in this case. In the 18th century, rich young men on the Grand Tour developed a taste for maccaroni, a type of pasta not known at the time in England.
The word maccaroni then came to be quickly associated with stereotypical, foppish young dandies, and particularly their outlandish fashions. The idea in the song then, is that a Yankee is so naïve that he thinks simply putting a feather in his hat makes him maccaroni.
All this makes me remember that when I was young, I called all pasta macaroni. Except spaghetti though: that was obviously distinctive enough for me to consider it a separate entity entirely, worthy of its own name. Though for quite a few years I did think that name was psghetti. I guess my brain, and my palate, weren’t yet sophisticated enough to accept the notion that there was a foodstuff called pasta, further subdivided into different types with their own names.
But of course I don’t think I’m entirely alone in that. As pasta is such a staple food in Italy, it of course makes sense that everyone in Italy would be completely familiar with the common types of pasta, and their names. But as in Ireland and the UK, at least in the 80s and 90s, pasta was a bit of a fancy treat, maybe once a week. Now we’re a little more aware of the names of the various types of pasta that are out there. Even then though, an Italian might roll their eyes a little at how we use those names.
Remember when I told you that panini is actually the plural form of panino, the Italian word for sandwich? Well, it’s a pretty similar situation with how we use names of pasta. Spaghetti, for example, is actually the plural form of un spaghetto, the word for a single strand of the popular pasta. Un maccherone, una farfalla, una penna etc. All singular words. Of course in Italy they rarely use the singular words (how often do you need to refer to a single strand of spaghetti?). Still though, grammatically they treat them as plural, using appropriate plural determiners: mi piaccono gli spaghetti, for example (I like spaghetti). Whereas we treat pasta as uncountable, or mass, nouns.
Does that mean we’ve been getting it wrong all this time? Well, maybe a little, but not too much. There’s certainly a logic to seeing pasta as plural: it’s made up of many little pieces. But even in a not-so-generous serving, there will still be a lot of those pieces, so it’s not unreasonable to think of it as a single mass. Unless you’re a very patient person, most servings of pasta are basically literally uncountable. And how much knowledge of Italian does the average English speaker actually have? Certainly not enough to be aware that words ending in -i or -e are probably plural forms.
Of course it’s now 2019, and it’s easier for people to find out that names of pasta are actually plural in Italian, leading to tweets and articles about how we’ve actually been using these words wrong. But we haven’t been, really. We think of pasta as a mass, so we refer to it as an uncountable noun. And most of us don’t now a lot about Italian grammar, so how would we know that spaghetti etc. are plural words in Italian? And could you imagine if we all tried to start saying spaghettoes, pennas, fusilloes?
No, we’re not going to change. Basically, spaghetti is an English uncountable noun, and the identical spaghetti is an Italian plural countable noun. Still, it’s good to be aware of how the original Italian words are used, even if it’s just so people know we’re not arrogant Anglophones, mangling words from other languages without being aware of their history.