Pasta has come a long way in a generation. As recently the early 1990s, users of the Oxford English Dictionary could treat themselves to a definition of macaroni as "a kind of wheaten paste, of Italian origin, formed into long tubes and dried for use as food." The framer of that definition clearly did not have the generic term to hand, which of course today we take completely for granted — so much so that we expect to see a pasta section on the average restaurant menu, and there are probably even teenagers in Tiburon who can identify the attachments on their parents' Trattorina Deluxe pasta machine.
Such is the zeal for this staple food in North American that it takes half an aisle in the supermarket these days to accommodate all the different shapes. What other food of identical composition can demand so much shelf space? In the Language Larder next door, we found the other day a similar phenomenon: pasta that was taking up an immoderate amount of shelf space, due to the Loungeurs' habit of being unable to resist buying different exotic shapes, and then never finishing the whole box. After all, most of us grew up with only spaghetti and macaroni in the house.
It's clearly time to consolidate. But under what organizational scheme? As you can imagine, this is always the great dilemma for those who live by words: alphabetical? conceptual? etymological? In a place like the Language Larder, things really can't be left higgledy-piggledy, so we brought along the Visual Thesaurus in order to abet our scheme and impose order to this pasta pandemonium, switching on the Italian search feature first in order to figure out just what some of these peculiar shapes are.
Here's a box of half full of one our most cherished shapes, gemelli. What are they? Twins it says, and that makes sense: two identical strands folded in the middle and twisted around each other. These ones are in fact conjoined twins, but you can see why they didn't want to go there for the name. The question is, can I combine them with what looks like one serving of riccioli? These fellows look like the same thing, only minus the joint.
Here we come up against a small obstacle: the Visual Thesaurus, like a dictionary, is lemmatized — that is, organized according to the main form, as opposed to the plural, the third person preterite, the past participle, or the like. Most words designating pasta shapes are in fact plurals, and many are diminutives. Take spaghetti, for example. It's a plural and a diminutive. Root: spago, which as you can see means twine, cord, or string. The diminutive is spaghetto, and its plural is: you guessed it!
Here's the trick: type in the name of your pasta shape before you get to any olli, ini, etti, or the like that may be on the end of the word, and then from the list that the Thesaurus brings up, you can make an educated guess. Getting back to the enchantingly entwined riccioli, we typed in ricci and voila! The Thesaurus' best guess was riccio (lock, curl, scroll, coil, etc.). But here's the organizational question: can we combine gemelli with riccioli? Do twins and curls mix? You bet they do! Think Bobbsey! In the Larder they do as well, or we'll never get to the end of this task: our executive decision is to combine the gemelli and the riccioli in a single box.
Now here's another dilemma: somebody bought something called gigli, which are kind of folded-over conelike things. They look like about the same thing as the campanelle, except the latter are a bit fluted around the top. Giglis, it turns out, are lilies. For the campanelle we vote for the best, guess, campanella, and bingo! We've got more flowers, in this case, morning glories. These two seem like a good match, so into one box they go, a veritable bouquet of pasta.
What about these — shells? That's what I want to call them, though the box (because we tend to buy only the chi-chi kinds that have Italian names) says Conchiglie. Here we'll go with the Thesaurus' best guess, and sure enough, shells they are. The question is: can they cohabit with half a package of these other fellows, lumache, that are slightly more elaborate but seem to partake of the same topology? Slugs, it says. I would be more comfortable with snails, because then we'd have the shell in common, and what the heck: once they're cooked and dripping with pesto, who's going to spot the difference?
Emboldened by these successes, I weigh two shapes that have only the circumference in common: there's ruote, which are like wheels with spokes, and there are anelletti, which are like wheels without the spokes. The best guess on ruote looks like ruota, quite a polyseme in Italian, but wheel is among the choices. For the annelletti, we suspect a diminutive, and we're going to go with just anell. Best guess looks like anello (band; ring; closed chain). Yeah, why not? One more box cleared from the shelf.
Now: the risoni look a lot like the orzo, except that the risoni are slightly more elongated. Who's going to know after they're cooked? Orzo, it looks like, is barley. For the risoni, again we suspect some affixal hijinks, and we go with ris. Best guess again is riso, and it's rice (or if you prefer, laughter: wow, what's the connection there?). Anyway, they're both grains, right? Let's put them in the same silo. In the meantime, query to the Italians: if you name your pasta shapes after other foods, what do you call the other foods?
This is feeling like child's play now, and we have no trouble combining our two remaining remnants: cavatappi, which we're reliably informed are corkscrews, and trivella, which it looks like are — power drills? Oh well, same job, just a different scale. Now they are one.
All this food-sorting has made us hungry, and now there's only one unmatched shape:
strozzapreti. The Visual Thesaurus says, huh? Well let's break it down. strozza = throat; preti = priest. Weird, huh? Just when you thought you had the Italians figured out. Looks like only one serving left. Let's boil some water!
If you want to explore the world of pasta and its manifold embodiments, there are no end of places to help you. Here are a couple to look at:
Nearly all the manufacturers of pasta have websites with pictures and explanations; some with recipes as well. A couple that we enjoy are:
Finally, if you feel like you're ready for the big time, the Mama Mia of all pasta shape lists is at
Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website.Click here to read other articles by Orin Hargraves
- Rate this article: