A Linguistic Tour Around the Kitchen

In English, we use adjectives like small and big to modify the size of a word. For example, to downsize the word spoon, we say small spoon. On the other hand, in Italian, we express the concept of smallness or largeness by dropping the last vowel of a word and then adding a set of letters called a suffix. If, for instance, we want to drink a shot of limoncello, we need a small glass. In Italian, to indicate a small glass, we drop the final -e of bicchiere (glass) and add -ino, so that it becomes bicchierino (small glass).  Similarly, to sweeten the experience of drinking a cup of espresso, we might eat a small cookie or biscottino (from biscotto- cookie). Another pattern of an Italian suffix is the three-letter word -one, which normally results in a concept of bigness. For example, in the case of a big plate, we take away the final -o of piatto (plate) and add -one. So that a normal size piatto (plate) becomes piattone (big plate). Comparably, a very gluttonous person might enjoy a big three-flavored gelato (ice cream) with whipped cream and a cherry on top which we would call gelatone (huge ice cream). The inclusion of the suffix -one does not just increase the proportion of a word. In some cases, it also personifies it. The objective of this article is to illustrate the figurative meaning that derives from the addition of -one suffix in some words that form part of the kitchen vocabulary.

  The first example that is important to mention is the word mangia (eat) which is a variation of the verb mangiare (to eat). We Italians “live to eat” and are known for encouraging tablemates to a second or a third serving with the expression “mangia, mangia!” even if our guest’s stomach might already be expanding like a balloon. When we connect mangia (minus the final a) with -one, we produce the word mangione. This term is symbolic of a person who normally eats a lot, but it is not necessarily a bad connotation.  For instance, it is very common for an Italian mamma to call her baby mangione, proudly listing everything he has consumed throughout the day. This name is a favorite of an Italian mamma because it implies her baby is growing healthy and strong, just like she would like him to be. On the other hand, mangione is also a word to describe someone who holds a prestigious office position who is drawing illicit profits for personal gain. That is, this mangione not only feeds his stomach, but also his bank account.

The next term derives from the word polenta, a typical Italian dish prepared by blending cornmeal with salt and water. When we connect the stem of polenta with the suffix -one, we produce the word polentone. This term alludes to two different interpretations. The first one symbolizes a lazy and lethargic individual. Geographically speaking, the second variation of polentone belongs to the Northern part of Italy. This version of polentone symbolizes a big polenta eater. This is also the linguistic stereotype a Southern Italian will use against a Northern Italian during an exchange of words when the latter labels the former with the term terrone (land worker). Nevertheless, in Italian, we have a proverb that states “non fare di tutta l’erba un fascio” which literally means: let’s not put all the hay in the same bundle. In other words, we don’t all have to be from the North of Italy to eat polenta, just like we don’t all have to be from the South to cultivate the land.

The case that follows, which derives from the word vitello (calf), is quite interesting. When we enlarge the noun vitello with the participle -one, we produce the word vitellone (big veal). Fans of Italian producer Federico Fellini will recognize this term because it represents one of the central themes of his film I Vitelloni (1953). From a figurative perspective, a vitellone embodies an indolent young person who spends time idling away with his friends, someone who is unemployed and thus financially unstable. Such a person is constantly dependent on the support of his family, often asking relatives to lend him money. As seen in Fellini’s movie, sadly, this individual spends his days in the same fashion, walking around con le mani in tasca (hands in the pocket) like someone who is lacking ambition.

The word zucca (pumpkin) is another good example worth mentioning here. Zucca is not simply a decor that embellishes the front steps of our houses during the fall season. In the culinary arts, it is the main ingredient used to make delicious recipes, especially pumpkin pies on Thanksgiving. The zucca pie, of course, will taste even better if we prepare it with the freshly carved pulp stored inside it, so that the result can be as genuine as possible. But what if someone just refuses to taste that authentic flavor we have created from scratch?  Then, we could jokingly call that person zuccone (hardheaded).  From a figurative perspective, zuccone alludes to a very stubborn individual, someone whose way of thinking is as hard as the cortex of the zucca.

We are almost at the end of this linguistic tour. My wish is that, so far, I have made some sense out of all this. Otherwise, it means that I have elaborated a big pasticcio (mess). In Italian pasticcio is a versatile word used in several contexts. In gastronomy, it denotes either a dessert or a savory pie. It also accompanies the idiomatic expression fare un pasticcio (to make a mess). When adding the particle -one to pasticcio, we create pasticcione (blunderer). From an emblematic perspective, the pasticcione is a person who speaks, writes or elaborates concepts at random. The ideas of such an individual lack organization and connection, resembling a pile of spaghetti all tangled up on the plate. I hope this article was not a huge pasticcio, but rather a way to present terms associated with the kitchen from a linguistic point of view and revealing the peculiar figurative essence that hides beyond them.