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Pasta is Life

Food terms borrowed from other languages tend to arrive intact, or undergo as little change as possible to still be comprehensible in the second language. As well as providing novelty and diversion for menu readers, this practice can be a real boon to English learners. A stroll down the pasta aisle of the supermarket can provide an opportunity to expand your knowledge of several word families. Nearly all pasta terms used in English are unchanged from Italian; Italian is the purest descendant of Latin; and Latin is the gift that keeps on giving in English: some scholars estimate that as much as 70% of classical Latin has a residue in English in some form.

It may surprise younger English speakers to learn that a concept like “pasta aisle” is actually a 20th-century development. Back in the day (that would be the 1950s or so) there was only spaghetti, macaroni, and perhaps lasagna on the shelves in many English-speaking countries, with no generic term to unite them. When more shapes of this “alimentary paste” (as the OED used to call it) began to turn up, the generic Italian term pasta gained currency in English. It’s unaltered from both Italian, where it means the same thing, and Latin, where it means “dough.” English relatives of the word include paste, pastry, and patisserie (a French loan word long at home in English).

You don’t even need to don your etymology hat to spot that the pasta shape called radiatori look a bit like radiators or that spirali are spirals. But if you scratch the surface of many other pasta words you’ll find that they hook up with a family of related words in English all connected with objects from real life: plants, animals, or manufactured items.

Take campanelle, for instance. These cone-shaped pasta shapes with a frilly edge look a little like a bell and a little like a flower. In fact they look like a bellflower, which in English is also called campanula. The word in Italian means “little bells.” The Latin ancestor of campanelle also gives us campanology (the art of bell-ringing), and campanile (a bell tower).

Closer to the ground, you can examine vermicelli, (“little worms” in Italian), ultimately from Latin vermis, “worm.” This root has wormed its way into several English words, including the technical terms vermicular and vermiculate, as well as vermin. The English word worm is also distantly related to the Latin word.

Various forms of roundness are a hallmark of pasta shapes. Names for them typically fall into one of three word families. In addition to spirali, noted above, there are fusilli, another kind of spiral-shaped pasta. The word ancestor of fusilli is Latin fusus, “spindle.” It turns up in English fuse and fusiform, “spindle-shaped.” Two other pasta shapes, rotelle “little wheels,” and rotini, another spiral-shaped pasta, carry the signature of Latin rota, “wheel,” a root that turns up unaltered in English rota as well as in rotate, rotary, and rotund.

In the following table, each row has a blank. See if you can supply the missing word—pasta shape, a related English word, or core meaning—that connects the other two words. The first row is done for you as an example.

Pasta shape
Meaning of root
Related English Word
conchiglie shell conch
linguine linguist
pen, quill pen
fiori floral
manicotti hand
moustache moustache
orecchiette aural
stelline star
capellini capillary

For the answers, look out for my next post in two weeks’ time.

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Orin Hargraves


  • Thanks for the article, it’s interesting to see how words move from one language into another, and the changes in meaning they might undergo in the process.

    I am Italian, but I could have never guessed the missing word in row six if I hadn’t been to the States! 🙂
    What is marketed as “mostaccioli” over there is called “penne” in Italy (and, I believe, in the rest of Europe). In Italian, “mostacciolo” (singular) is a confection eaten at Christmas, whose name derives from “mosto” (must), one of its ingredients. The “mostaccioli” pasta name must have originated in the Italian-American community because the standard Italian word for moustache is “baffo” (plural “baffi”).

    Interestingly, in Italy we do not eat any pasta shaped as flowers and the name “rotini” is also unheard of. I suspect “rotini” is another word that must have originated in the Italian-American community, as it is not used in standard Italian; to a native speaker, it suggests something round(ish) but definitely not spiral-like.

  • Interesting observations, Licia; I hadn’t heard of mostaccioli either, despite many years studying Italian and living in Italy; in fact until I looked it up I was thinking along the lines of ‘baffi’, though I knew it couldn’t be right etymologically. Of course these words undergo grammatical changes as well: spaghetti, ravioli, lasagne etc. have all mysteriously become uncountable; and I sometimes wonder what Italians make of ‘macaroni’, as in macaroni cheese, should they encounter it.

  • Thanks for your comments, Licia and Liz. One of the sources I used to research this post was this lovely page, courtesy of Barilla:

    Licia, I think you’re right that some of these terms originated in the vast Italian-American community. And as Liz notes, all Italian pastas (though usually plurals in Italian) are mass nouns in English. Noodle, however (a Germanic word), isn’t. So, chicken and noodles, but spaghetti and meatballs.

  • Chitarrine – (little guitars) not because of the shape but because of how it’s made. Apparently one of the very first types of pasta , made with a box where the guitar type strings are used to cut the pasta into squared spagehtti.

  • Lorena: I think my favorite shape ever, which I’ve seen only in Italy, is Racchette (made by De Cecco); they’re tiny tennis rackets (or racquets, as some would have it).

  • One of the many things that intrigued me when I first went to Italy was the sight of my employer’s mother sitting at the kitchen table breaking spaghetti into lengths to be put into soup. Of course if she’d had access to Barilla’s cut spaghetti she could have saved herself the trouble…

    By the way, I think pasta is one of the highest expressions of the exuberant inventive genius of the Italians. I mean, it’s basically flour and water, and they make it into all these wonderful shapes. I know different shapes go with different sauces, but it’s almost like it’s done just for the fun of it.

    Back on topic, here’s another one for you: ditalini (“little thimbles”).

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