Free Language Lessons
Words frequently change their meanings over time, and pursuing such change often illustrates cultural and historical shifts as well as changes in metaphors. The word “macaroni” has come down to us in its original meaning of a sort of pasta, but has also shifted its way down the garden path, now also appearing as part of the name of macaroni penguins.
Macaroni penguins are the most numerous penguin of all, there being an estimated nine million breeding pairs of them. They also might be the most colorful, but the reason for their name is what interests me most. Usually, the naming metaphor is obvious. When you hear of a chinstrap penguin, and see the black line ear to ear under its chin, the connection to a helmet with a chinstrap springs to mind immediately. But macaroni penguins?
When hearing the word, one thinks immediately about pasta, since macaroni is an English variant spelling of the Italian maccherone, (plural: maccheroni), referring to a pasta that technically must not contain eggs. Macaroni has been known in the US since none other than Thomas Jefferson introduced the first macaroni machine in 1789 on his return from serving as Ambassador to France.
But put pasta out of your mind. Even before 1789 the word macaroni was known in the US because of the macaroni fashion, which to me is the most interesting part of this story. And from the original use of the word to the point of naming penguins with the word come layer upon layer of metaphors and other associations.
In the 18th Century, maccherone in Italian also referred to a “boorish fool”. It is not unusual to use foods to describe people, and the foods need have absolutely nothing to do with the characteristic involved. Why do we call a nice person a good egg? Or an inactive person a couch potato? Years ago an attractive woman was called a tomato. So the first step in this separation of the literal meaning of macaroni as pasta from other uses of the word was calling a fool (in Italian) a maccherone.
Young men who had been on the Grand Tour to Italy adopted that word, as macaroni, to designate any fashion that was, foolishly perhaps, way over the top. They described such exagerated fashion as being very macaroni. These dandies or fops dressed in outrageous colors and stripes, had the highest powdered wigs (the fashion at the time) with long curls, possibly with a hat so high on the wig that you couldn’t reach it, and they otherwise set themselves apart as being very noticeable and affected, in speech as well. They were the metrosexuals of their day, at very least. They may have used feathers, but that was not essential. These people willfully setting themselves apart as “foolishly fashionable” macaronis is the second phase of the genesis of the word.
The third phase of the story brings up the song Yankee Doodle, popular during the American Revolution, which makes fun of a Yankee who “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni”. Unless one knows of the macaroni fashion, this line will never make sense. The song is laughing at a simple, naïve Yankee who felt that nothing more than a single feather added to his cap would make him fashionable enough to be part of the macaroni fashion. These may have been alternative lyrics that started with the teasing of the British soldiers, but they were also enthusiastically taken over by the Yankees themselves, and incorporated into the song, possibly to boast that Yankees were indeed simpler, more basic folk than those across the Atlantic.
Only because of this song, where macaroni now became associated with a feather for the first time, we come to the fourth level of meaning shift, the macaroni penguin. Google the name and you will see that it’s another type of smaller penguin, distinguished by bright, thin, yellow and black feathers chaotically sprouting from above each ear. Knowing the full story of the changes in the word macaroni other than it referring to pasta, what more appropriate name could there be in this case than macaroni penguin?
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- Word Meaning Change - From Macaroni to Macaroni Penguins -- Vincent DiNapoli