Monday, November 17, 2014

You say cannoli, I say cannolis

I'm posting this 17-year-old Word column (now paywalled in the Boston Globe's archives) in response to Mark Allen (@EditorMark on Twitter), who just tweeted about panini, which I somehow overlooked when writing about similar Italian plurals. It appeared on Sept. 14, 1997, just a couple of weeks after Princess Diana died in a Paris car that was being pursued by paparazzi. I haven't updated the usage research, except to verify that we (the English-speaking public) remain far more comfortable with the double plural cannolis than with biscottis

Do paparazzi prefer cannoli?
The paparazzi are under a cloud these days, scorned around the world for their unsavory trade and its role in Princess Diana's death. But for the word paparazzi, there's a silver lining: All that attention is reawakening English speakers to the fact that paparazzi is a plural, with a very presentable Italian singular form.

The word, as we all heard during the post-crash coverage, was coined by Federico Fellini, who gave the name Paparazzo to the celebrity-chasing photographer of "La Dolce Vita." What inspired the choice is more mysterious: Some accounts mention an annoying childhood friend of Fellini's by that name; one suspects the influence of pappataci, a sand-fly. "It translates literally as Daddy Rocket, though it may owe something to the verb razzolare, meaning to scrape or scratch around in debris," ventures a New Zealand newspaper columnist.

As the paparazzi furor burned on, our collective mastery of the word improved. There were a few three-p papparazzis and at least one reference to a paparazzi -- as well as an Internet mourner's poporatizee and a newspaper's unfortunate contraction, paps -- but most writers got it right.

Still, the paparazzi variations are a reminder of the general lawlessness of our language in the matter of adopted plurals. We can choose seraphs or seraphim, tableaux or tableaus, depending on our taste and our dictionary. We've kept alumni and alumnae in their Latin forms, but we've domesticated stadiums and forums.

When the language is Latin, of course, there are no current speakers to object to the anglicizing process. English plurals also form rapidly on words in less familiar languages, since we can't hear anything amiss when we add -s to words like the Bantu marimba or Swahili safari -- two nice examples from the Columbia Guide to Standard American English.

But Italian plurals are all around us, in movies about mafiosi, in music lovers' concerti and libretti, and most of all, in our diet -- in the restaurants and cookbooks where we find penne and tagliatelle and risotto con funghi.

Even these well-known words aren't easy to master: We still haven't agreed on lasagne vs. lasagna. The pastas alone would have defeated English speakers long ago, if they hadn't been so cooperative about functioning as collective nouns. So our noodles are plural, but our spaghetti is construed as a singular, and we never give a thought to a raviolo or a gnocco.

And on the dessert menu, there's some delicious evidence of the pluralizing process caught in the act, with all its cultural baggage on display.

When we order cannoli and biscotti, we generally use the same word whether we want one or half a dozen -- a cannoli, we say, but most of us feel enough of the plural force that we also say three biscotti. Some people, however, make the plural even more so, ordering six cannolis.

"We are used to it," said Enza Merola of Maria's Pastry [in Boston's North End], admitting that she has adopted the usage she hears and dropped the Italian singulars: "I would never say to a customer, 'one cannolo?' "

In print, however, cannoli and biscotti meet different fates. A search of the Globe archives, though not exactly rigorous science, shows that the plural cannolis is 20 times as likely to be used in a cannoli connection as is the plural biscottis in a similar spot.

Why the gap? I suspect it's a matter of cultural context. Both desserts are old favorites, but biscotti made a comeback as a trendy treat over the past couple of decades, while cannoli remained the ultimate in creamy, messy indulgence.

The new biscotti are clearly cookies for grown-ups -- dry, brittle, sophisticated. And the new biscotti people notice things like singulars and plurals in their favorite food languages. Hence biscotti holds on to its plural feeling, while cannoli cheerfully drops the distinction.

All conjecture, yes. But there's support for it in a new catalog from J. Peterman, who's now hawking not just clothes but rugs and china -- including a floral biscotti jar for $150.

The jar itself is labeled Biscotti. The ad copy calls it a biscotti jar. But in the headline, it's a Biscotto Jar. And the reason for that, you can bet your chocolate cannolo, is to let readers know that J. Peterman, il principe of pretentious prose, is one of them -- a master of the singular of biscotti

A year later, in August 1998, I finally caught up with a footnote from The Economist that revealed the probable source of  papparazzo. 

The first of the paparazzi died last month, less than a year after the crash that killed Princess Diana and set off a worldwide debate on the hit-and-run photographers' ethics -- and the origins of their name.

Tazio Secchiaroli, a Roman "street photographer," had been Federico Fellini's model for the celebrity-chasing character in 1960's "La Dolce Vita," everyone agreed. But why had Fellini named his character Paparazzo? Was it related to razzolare, to scratch around in trash? Influenced by pappataci, an annoying sand-fly? Was it, as one reader of this column suggested, a Riminese dialect word for the part of the chicken sometimes known as the pope's nose?

While the rest of us were scratching our heads, some amazingly well-read source tipped off The Economist that the true Paparazzo could be found in a 1902 travel book; thus, the London weekly's post-crash coverage included a footnote informing us that Fellini's scriptwriter "took the name from `By the Ionian Sea,' a book by George Gissing. Coriolano Paparazzo was the proprietor of the hotel in Catanzaro where the British poet had stayed." Gissing was in fact a novelist, and the magazine gave the wrong date for his trip, but the squib was still a coup -- especially the smug last line, which noted that "Gissing's book is still on sale in Calabria, in an excellent Italian translation."

To mark Secchiaroli's departure for the great darkroom in the sky, Michael Quinion, proprietor of the World Wide Words Web site, revisits the history of paparazzo in his most recent newsletter. His account looks like the last word on the word, if not on the subject. Concludes Quinion: "I can only wonder at what the late Signore Paparazzo, the keeper of that hotel in Catanzaro, would make of the coincidences that led through an English writer’s recording of a brief stay there, and the accidental encounter with it by an Italian scriptwriter, to the borrowing of his name as one of the more pejorative in the English language."*

Skeptics who'd like to meet this Signore Paparazzo can find him via the Internet, too. Among the surprisingly numerous Gissing-related Web sites -- even discounting those that use him only as a limerick rhyme -- there's one with the full text of "By the Ionian Sea." In the original English, of course, not the excellent Italian translation.

*The language in this paragraph has been altered slightly, reflecting updates to Quinion's blog post since the original publication.


Gregory Lee said...

"Spaghetto" exists, according to the Urban Dictionary, but derives from "ghetto spaghetti" and refers to ramen dressed with ketchup.

Linda said...

All language, dialects and languages have grammar. That's because grammar is the means by which words are strung together in meaningful chunks....!!

Grammar check

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Becky G said...

Love it! I teach grammar and proper use of the English language to non native speakers. I use Phil Williams' book The English Tenses Practical Grammar Guide. It's the best resource I have come across in a long time. His site is If you want to correct people then this read is for you!

robert said...

"Leave the gun, take the cannolis?" It just doesn't sound right.

Unknown said...

"Throw Grammar from the Train" has been included in our A Sunday Drive for this week. Be assured that we hope this helps to point even more new visitors in your direction.

martin said...

The French eat "sandwichs;" we should be allowed cannellonis.