Call It Macaroni


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Just in time to palliate the itch to add my learned commentary to Kellyanne Conway’s remarkable coinage of a hot candidate for Word of the Year 2017, “alternative facts,” the snail mail this week brought from the Missouri University of Science & Technology, in Rolla, the latest issue of Gerald Cohen‘s Comments on Etymology. As is frequently the case, Cohen is not only editor but author of the half-dozen articles in the 32 pages of Vol. 46, No. 3-4 for December 2016-17. And this issue features the scoop on macaroni.

Cohen is talking here not about the Italian dish per se, but a men’s fashion style in England that got its name from that dish. He quotes the Oxford English Dictionary on macaroni, definition 2: “(in the second half of the 18th century) a member of a set of young men who had travelled in Europe and extravagantly imitated Continental tastes and fashions. … This use seems to be from the name of the Macaroni Club, a designation probably adopted to indicate the preference of the members for foreign cookery, macaroni being at that time little eaten in England.”

And that might be that, just a passing fashion in England of little interest to us, except for a well-known satirical song composed by an Englishman and enthusiastically adopted by Americans fighting for independence:

Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni.

In this context, we can understand that Yankee Doodle didn’t mistake his feather for a dish of macaroni. Rather, he aimed to present himself as a “Yankee Doodle dandy” ready to “Mind the music and the step And with the girls be handy.” A century later in New York City, instead of a macaroni he would be known as a dude.

But dudes never attained the extreme fashion overload of the macaroni. An 1893 piece in The Pall Mall Gazette, included in meticulous detail in Cohen’s article, told the story of the macaroni and illustrated it with sketches of men with wigs several feet tall and other peculiarities, quoting a Mrs. Delaney: “The chief topick of conversation yesterday was Lord Villiers’ appearance at Court in a pale-purple velvet coat, turned up with lemon-colour, and embroidered all over with S’s as big as pease, and in all the spaces little medallions in beaten gold, real solid, in various figures of cupids and the like.”

In the illustration for this article, you can get the picture. For better or worse, we have nothing like it today.

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