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shameless pleading

Macaroni

The noodle knows.

Dear Word Detective:  I’m reading about the famous 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa, and it has repeated mentions of people referred to as “macaroni.”  It brings to mind other references from a decade or so before that, of it being a compliment to be told, “You look very macaroni.”  I looked up the definition, and — after wading through descriptions of pasta — it says the term was used for a while to refer to young men who affected foreign mannerisms.  Can you tell me how “macaroni” came to be used in this way?  I’m especially surprised that it was a compliment about looking or acting high-class, since — at least for those of us of Italian descent — macaroni is such a basic, down-to-earth food. — Rosemarie Eskes, Rochester, NY.

Well, there you go.  Another gap in my education surfaces.  I was unaware that the Mona Lisa had ever actually been stolen, and that both Picasso and the poet Apollinaire were initially considered suspects.  It was eventually recovered, of course, and returned to the Louvre, but, according to Wikipedia, it’s been the target of attacks by aggrieved nutjobs ever since.  That explains why, when I saw it in Paris twenty years ago, it was behind bulletproof glass so thick that it might as well have been underwater.  Why can’t those crackpots just collect twine like the rest of us?

The Louvre employee who was eventually found to have stolen the painting was an Italian chap who felt that the painting belonged in Leonardo Da Vinci’s homeland, but I’m not sure that particular Italian connection is relevant to your question.  So perhaps it’s best to begin at the beginning.

Macaroni is, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, “A variety of pasta formed in short, narrow tubes, usually boiled and served with a sauce, esp. in Italian cookery; a dish consisting of this.”  The source of the word “macaroni,” which first appeared in English at the end of the 16th century, was the Italian “maccheroni,” which in turn was derived from the Greek “makaria,” meaning “food made from barley.”

But the fact that the word “macaroni” was known in English that long ago didn’t mean that the pasta itself was even remotely as popular outside of Italy as it is today.  In fact, non-Italians were likely to encounter it only on trips to Italy, and in the 18th century, wealthy young men who had been to Italy formed an exclusive “Macaroni Club” in London, adopting the pasta’s name as the mark of sophistication.  The general public was less than impressed, however, and “macaroni” soon became a slang term meaning “dissolute fop.”  This is the same “macaroni” found in the song “Yankee Doodle,” originally sung by British soldiers to annoy the American colonists by suggesting that the American bumpkins would think that sticking a feather in their cap would make them “cool.”  It’s possible that this is the sense of “macaroni” that you encountered in reading about the Mona Lisa theft.

But it’s more likely, especially given the date of the crime, that the “macaroni” in question was a later and sadly predictable use of the word in England as a derogatory slang term for anyone of Italian nationality or extraction.  This use first appeared in the mid-19th century and was still going strong in recent years (“The macaronis are shooting each other and it’s hard to tell who’s on whose side,” Elmore Leonard, 1985).  Given that the theft happened in 1911, it’s probable that this is the sense of “macaroni” you encountered.

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