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How the English language slipped up when it came to spaghetti

Five Broadway show girls participated in a 'spaghetti swooshing' contest, where they had to eat a plate of spaghetti and sauce without using their hands - Credit: Bettmann Archive

Like most British people of my age, I first encountered spaghetti in a tin, in tomato sauce. In our house it was kept in the pantry alongside the tins of baked beans, and we ate it in the same way as the beans: on toast, for breakfast.

When I was a child, spaghetti on toast was one of my favourite breakfasts.I write was here rather than were, because English speakers decided long before I was born that the word spaghetti was singular. We say “this spaghetti is good”, not “these spaghetti are good”. This is in spite of the fact that the pasta itself  – and so the word – first came to Britain from Italy, and that in Italian spaghetti is plural.

Even if we did not initially follow the Italian way of serving and eating spaghetti, we did preserve the Italian spelling. But when English first borrowed the word spaghetti from Italian, we did not preserve its Italian grammatical status. 

Spago is the Italian word for ‘string’. Spaghetto is a diminutive form of spago, meaning ‘little string’ (larghetto, from largo ‘slow’, is a musical direction indicating ‘less slow than largo’; stiletto is a small stilo, ‘dagger’). The plural of spaghetto is spaghetti. So what I so much enjoyed eating for my breakfast was literally ‘little strings’.Unlike us, speakers of certain other languages appear to have taken note of the fact that this noun is plural in Italian. German speakers say Diese Spaghetti sind gut and Swiss Germans say d’Spaghetti sind guet, both meaning ‘These spaghetti are good’. In Czech, the form is spagety, and it too is plural. For Greek speakers, spaggeti often has a plural form, although the special singular form spaggetto also occurs; and Greeks are in fact just as likely to call spaghetti makarónia, which also plural.English speakers are in quite good company, however, in sticking with the singular interpretation. Swedish, Hungarian and Finnish use a singular form, spagetti (its usual spelling in these languages); and in Polish spaghetti is singular too.

In addition to spaghetti, the English language has borrowed a large number of other words for various forms of food and drink from Italian, not least from the coffee lexicon: espresso (sometimes anglicised as expresso), doppio, cappuccino, latte, macchiato, ristretto, americano, freddo…

A rather recent Italian foodstuff borrowing is panini, which seems to have made an appearance in North American English in the 1980s. Pane is the Italian word for ‘bread’, with panino being a diminutive which literally means ‘little bread’. (The diminutive suffix -ino (masculine)/-ina (feminine) can also be seen in difficilino, from difficile, ‘difficult’, meaning ‘a little bit difficult’. A sonatina is a short sonata.)

Panini is the plural of panino, and so literally means ‘small breads’, though in modern Italian it has basically come to mean ‘sandwiches’. In English, we have again ignored the original grammar and treated the word as singular – to the extent that we have now created a new English plural form of panini, as in “two chicken and pesto paninis, please”.

Spanish speakers have done the same thing with spaghetti, and say Los espaguetis están muy ricos ‘The spaghettis are very tasty’. There are even Americans who go along with hispanophones and speak of spaghettis.

Fettucine ‘little ribbons’, tagliatelle ‘tapes’, vermicelli ‘little worms’, and macaroni (maccheroni in the modern language) are also plural in Italian

The ultimate origins and meaning of the word macaroni are uncertain; but there is some suggestion that it may have come from Greek.

Lasagne is plural too: to an Italian speaker, a lasagna is a single flat sheet of pasta. The plural form, lasagne, has to be used to refer to the dish as a whole because it consists of several such pasta sheets and other ingredients baked together. But, like us, most of the rest of the world does not know this, and even German speakers treat lasagne as a singular.  

Cappuccino Italian cappuccino is a diminutive of cappuccio, ‘hood’. Capuchins are a religious order of Franciscan Catholic friars who are so called because they wear a tunic with a hood. The tunic and hood are a particular shade of brown, and cappuccino coffee was thought to share that same particular colour.