A cheddar panini, per favore

Tinned spaghetti hoops – unrecognizable to most Italians

by Colin McIntosh

Anna Cortopassi’s new book Ricette e Ricordi, published in English by A for Aardvark as Recipes and Recollections, describes an unusual juxtaposition of Italian and English cooking. Anna grew up in Italy, learning Italian techniques from her mother, but left for London in the early 1960s, where her new Irish-English mother-in-law introduced her to a very different set of skills and some new ingredients. Her customary Christmas menu nowadays attests to those two influences: tortellini and turkey, Christmas pud and panettone.

Nowadays Italian food is far from uncommon in British supermarkets and restaurants, but it wasn’t always so. In the 1960s olive oil was only available from pharmacies as a medicine. And the journey from Italy to Britain hasn’t always been smooth, from the linguistic as well as the culinary point of view.

Italians often attribute the introduction of pasta to Italy to Marco Polo, who is said to have brought it back from China. This is probably a piece of folkloric embroidery; in any case there is documentary evidence for pasta-making in Sicily a century before the Venetian’s famous oriental journeys. But who introduced pasta to Britain?

Macaroni is first mentioned in 1390 in an English cookbook that collects recipes from Richard II’s kitchen, in the form makerouns. Both of these forms are adaptations of the Italian maccheroni. In Tuscany, maccheroni are flat squares of homemade egg pasta, usually served with a meat sauce (as described in Anna’s book), but in other parts of Italy the word refers to dried pasta tubes, although not necessarily the small, elbow-shaped ones that English speakers know from mac ‘n’ cheese. In Italy these would be called pipette, ‘little pipes’. Foodstuffs, and the words associated with them, rarely travel without being transformed in some way.

Spaghetti was among the first of the modern arrivals, although British tinned spaghetti would be completely unrecognizable to most Italians. Meaning ‘little strings’, in Italian it’s a plural word (you say ‘the spaghetti are cooked’ in Italian). In English it became uncountable, like rice or porridge (‘the spaghetti is cooked’). Most of the other pasta words are similarly plural in Italian but uncountable in English: tagliatelle, bucatini, ravioli, etc., etc. And when it comes to the bizarre modern English restaurant fashion for serving just one of those stuffed pasta objects as an accompaniment, menus usually describe it as ‘a single ravioli’, which makes no sense, as ravioli is plural. Raviolo is the form an Italian would use (but probably wouldn’t, since a raviolo as an accompaniment would never be seen on an Italian table). Similarly, panini is plural in Italian (meaning simply ‘bread rolls’), but is used in English as a singular to refer to a kind of toasted sandwich, as in ‘a tuna and cheddar panini’.

Most of the British attempts at pronouncing the names of Italian foodstuffs have to be forgiven, but bruschetta is one that I have a particular antipathy for and cannot pass without comment. A German pronunciation has taken root here, where the sch is pronounced as English sh. No! Why? It’s not German! It’s bru-sket-ta. Italian bruschetta is a very simple affair, just sourdough bread, a faint smearing of garlic, and a drizzle of freshly pressed olive oil, unlike the British version, which tends to be piled high with garlic butter, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and, per carità, cheddar.

Anna Cortopassi describes some of these unfortunate cultural collisions with humour in her book. If you would like to try out some of her favourite Italian, English, and international recipes (including bruschetta and Christmas pudding), you can find them in Recipes and Recollections. Buon Natale e buon appetito!

Recipes and Recollections is published by A for Aardvark and is available now from the A for Aardvark bookstore.

Stung – by a jelly?

Pelagia noctiluca, also known as the purple stinger

Pelagia noctiluca, also known as the purple stinger [Photo © Hans Hillewaert CC BY-SA 4.0]

The evolution of popular animal names
by Colin McIntosh
If you thought the risk of being injured by a coloured dessert usually found at children’s parties was negligible, you’re right. These jellies sting – and I have the scars to prove it.
My attacker, Pelagia noctiluca, is one of the most venemous in the Med, and there was a swarm of them around Ibiza in October. You may call it a jellyfish, but scientists nowadays avoid the word, preferring instead the term jelly. Although it sounds like an informal way of referring to these evil stingers, it is actually more scientifically correct, because, of course, jellyfish are not fish.
It’s all part of the increasing trend towards the SC: the scientifically correct. You’ve probably heard of politically correct, where traditional or old-fashioned ways of referring to things or people are avoided so as not to cause offence. Here we’re talking about avoiding traditional, sometimes folksy, ways of referring to animals because they’re unscientific or confusing. Do you remember koala bears? Although cuddly, they’re not bears, so they’re now called koalas. Orca were once known almost exclusively as killer whales. Now, though, the whale has been dropped (they’re more closely related to dolphins); and the killer part is also something we prefer not to mention. After all, we don’t talk about killer lions – or killer jellies.
The trend also extends to extinct animals. Sabre-toothed tigers (saber in American English) are now sabre-toothed cats (despite not being true cats) or simply sabretooths. And what about poor Brontosaurus, whose name was wiped from history when it was temporarily reclassified as Apatosaurus? Now Brontosaurus is back, the paleontologists having changed their minds again. Perhaps we should just stick with the old names.
While the impetus for these changes in nomenclature comes from the scientific community, their spread to non-scientists is likely a result of the popularization of the science through TV documentaries. The BBC’s latest one, Blue Planet II, narrated by David Attenborough, is a feast not just of jellies, but also fish, orca, six-gill sharks, and hundreds of other weird and wonderful deep-sea denizens.
Anyway, I quite like jellies – the name, that is, not the animal. I’ll be trying to give the evil stingers a wide berth in the future.

Boom bang-a-bang – it’s Eurovision time again!

The winners of Eurovision 2017

The winners of Eurovision 2017

by Colin McIntosh

Congratulations to Portugal on winning the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time ever! Amar pelos dois, the winning song, was sung in Portuguese by Salvador Sobral. The UK did slightly better than usual, coming 15th with I’ll never give up on you, sung in English by Lucie Jones.

English has a proud history of taking part in Eurovision, most notably when sung by non-native English speakers, such as Abba. The English may not always be recognizable to native speakers (“Be my Bonnie, will mix and match with Clyde” and “Now I’m into daydreams / Amazed by thorn jeans” featured this year) , but that’s hardly the point. Nonsense words feature heavily (La la la, Ding-a-dong) to the extent that the Eurovision style was parodied by the Monty Python team in Bing tiddle-tiddle bong, and the genre is even imitated by British songwriters – see Lulu’s 1969 winner Boom bang-a-bang.

Despite the UK’s proposed departure from the EU, there is no danger of English ceasing to be a language of Eurovision. The UK will continue to take part, and other countries will continue to enter songs partly or entirely in Euro-English.

So whose English is it anyway? Certainly not England’s. Only 50 million speakers of English were born in England (out of a total of over 1.5 billion English speakers). Currently English is spoken as a first language by around 13% of over-15s in the EU. It is the second most widely spoken native language, after German. Including those who speak it as an additional language, that figure rises to over 50%.
After Brexit, the number of native speakers will be far lower: around 1%. But it will still be the most widely spoken language in the EU, with around 40% having the ability to hold a conversation in English. German is next, at around 30%, followed by French, at around 25%.

These figures seem to show that English will continue to be the main lingua franca of Europe, at least in the short to medium term. But this will mean that the English used will have a much looser connection with native-speaker English, with Ireland and Malta being the only other countries where English is an important native language.

So if English continues to be spoken in Europe, what will it look like? Well, Euro-English already exists. There are many features that are common to the types of English spoken by continental Europeans as a second or foreign language, but different from the English of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. This kind of English has been dubbed ELF, or “English as a lingua franca”, by some academics, but is commonly referred to as Euro-English in a European context.

Euro- is a prefix (or combining form, to use a more technical term) that can be added to practically any word you like. In form it is simply the word Europe with the end chopped off, but has gained traction because of its similarity to other combining forms referring to nationalities such as anglo-, franco-, and italo-.

Starting perhaps with Eurovision itself in 1950, it has been one of the most productive prefixes of its type in English. Depending on the context, it can refer to the continent of Europe, the European Union, or the euro currency (which itself is an interesting case of a prefix that has been transformed into a word).

The prefix is, ironically, probably more common in English than in other European languages. It is frequently used disparagingly by the tabloid press in Britain, as in eurocrat and eurofederalism, but it can also be part of the EU’s own terminology, officially or unofficially, as in euroregion, eurocent, and the eurozone. Eurosceptic, referring to the anti-EU wing of the UK Conservative Party, seems to have run its course, though, and has found itself overtaken by events and generally ousted by the more forceful Brexiteer.

We’ll look at some of the common words and features of Euro-English in some posts over the coming weeks.

Will smartphones take over the world?


Apes: they really are smarter than you think.

by Colin McIntosh

We are definitely becoming dumber. When I walk around Cambridge I need to be extra-careful not just to avoid bikes in the shared pedestrian-and-bike spaces, but also to make sure that no zombie-faced smartphone users are dumbwalking in my direction, heads down, noses in their phones, and oblivious to all passing traffic and other dumbwalkers. Have their brains been taken over by their phones? Do they want to live beyond 19 and three quarters?

Maybe technology makes us stupid. In the 1980s mobile phone technology seemed like a miracle, but now we disparage anything without internet capability as a dumbphone. Looking back, though, weren’t they more efficient? At least you didn’t end up wasting half an hour just checking your messages.

And really, smartphones are not all that smart. Have you ever answered a call just to hear some muffled sounds in the background? Chances are you’ve been pocket-dialled (US pocket-dialed). It’s remarkably easy to dial a contact inadvertently just because you accidentally pressed some buttons on the phone in your pocket. Also referred to less politely as butt-dialling (US butt-dialing), such calls, called pocket calls or (impolitely) butt calls, are thought to make up 50% of all calls to the emergency services.

Nowadays it’s not just our phones that are supposedly smart. The word has taken on a new meaning, “connected to the internet”, and can be applied to any device, once dumb, that could be programmed to operate remotely or without human intervention. Smart fridges tell you when you’re low on milk, and even order it from your online supermarket. If you have a smart thermostat, you can turn the heating on before you leave work (via your smartphone) so your flat is nice and toasty when you get in. Smart security cameras allow you to keep an eye on your place when you’re away on holiday. All these devices are part of the Internet of Things, or IoT, and they will soon make human beings redundant.

But they’re not smart enough to work when a software update goes wrong, or when you‘re hacked by criminals who have installed ransomware on your device. If you want your heating to work again, you need to pay the criminals a small fee – or sit and shiver.

Study, practise, or test yourself on words from this post

Stop the world – I want to get off!


Ana­logue transport – it gets you there in the end.

by Colin McIntosh

The speed at which fashions change has been increasing since the first humans decided to bling up their bearskins with a few feathers. Technology too has a tendency to accelerate in a bewildering fashion. Just think that it took five thousand years to add one wheel to another to make a bicycle, whereas the last thirty years have seen us move from dumbphones the size of bricks to the iPhone 7.

What if we could just stop the clock? (more…)

Do you speak Carioca?

rio600by Colin McIntosh

The Rio games are over! Unless you’ve been hiding under a stone for the past few weeks, you can’t fail to have noticed that the city of Rio de Janeiro was taken over by thousands of runners, cyclists, gymnasts, and other athletes putting on a show for the world for a couple of weeks.

And what a show! Aside from the colourful opening ceremony and the superhuman efforts of the athletes, I also enjoyed (more…)

What’s it all about?

Colin_McIntosh cropby Colin McIntosh

Some of you will have been reading my blog posts for Cambridge over the past year or so. Now that I’ve branched out on my own, I hope you’ll stay with me.

I’ll be looking at some of the interesting developments in English taking place at the moment, including new words, changing pronunciation and grammar, and evolving varieties of the language. Some of the background themes will include globalization and World English, the influence of technology, and changing fashions as reflected in language.  (more…)

To boldly go…

to boldly go

by Colin McIntosh About words: A blog from Cambridge Dictionaries

Even though we like to complain about our weather, we live on a planet that almost seems to have been created specifically for humans (rather than humans having evolved to suit the conditions). Temperatures are generally moderate, and the worst effects of cosmic rays and radiation from the sun are mitigated by our atmosphere. Scientists call planets that enjoy this fortunate combination of conditions Goldilocks planets – not too hot and not too cold, but just right, as in the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, where Goldilocks tests three bowls of porridge until she finds the one that is just right. Goldilocks is just one of the new meanings added to the Cambridge dictionary that are connected with space exploration and colonization.

What if conditions were to change (more…)