Monday, February 22, 2010


What do you call that?

In her new blog, The Thrifty Epicure, D. gives her recipe for minestrone, and notes something about the pronunciation:

As I ordered the minestrone, the waitress looked at me as if I had strange things coming out of my head, and I finally had to point to the board so that she could see I really was ordering something from the menu. "Oh, you mean mine-strone?" She was incredulous at my pronunciation of "Min-est-roney", and seemed to think we were saying it that way to mock her.

That one seems pathological (the waitress simply had no clue), but I run into various Americanized pronunciations of foreign foods all the time, and it often amuses me.

Of course, there’s cruh-SANT for “croissant”. I never expect Americans to get French words right (try “bouillabaisse”, for another great one). The “croi” combination is hard, and I’m prepared for folks’ not knowing that the “nt” shouldn’t be pronounced distinctly, but makes the “a” nasal. But, really, we should at least be able to open up the “a” a bit, and say cwa-SAHNT; that’d be tolerable.

The Greek meat sandwich called γύρος, transliterated as “gyros”, isn’t a plural and is not like the first syllable of gyroscope. It’s not “a gyro”, but is pronounced, approximately, YEE-ros, with an unvoiced “s”. Order it that way, though, and unless the waiter is Greek you might get the same puzzled look that greeted D. at Dunkin’ Donuts.

But Italian foods can be the funniest, in part because Italian-Americans themselves have done a lot of Americanizing, adding that on to the southern Italian practice of not pronouncing the final vowels. “Manicotti” becomes ma-na-COTT, for instance, but that’s not going to cause any confusion. Try ordering a sfogliatella, though, as sfo-lya-TEL-la, and things are different — they pronounce it FOO-yuh-DELL.

And “pasta e fagioli”, a soup whose name means “pasta and beans”, is called pasta fa-ZOOL here in New York.

A colleague told me an amusing story, many years ago. Her pre-teen son invited a friend of his over for dinner, and the friend asked what they were having. “Pasta fazool,” was mom’s answer. Her son’s Italian-American friend was especially fond of pasta e fagioli, and enthusiastically accepted the invitation.

At dinner, my co-worker served up plates of elbow macaroni with ground beef and tomatoes — their non-Italian family just thought that “pasta fazool” was a fanciful name for pasta with stuff mixed into it, and had no idea that it was really a specific thing. “This isn’t pasta fazool!”, said the friend, disappointed.

He later got his mother to invite the family over for real pasta e fagioli, to show them how it’s supposed to be done.


Nathaniel Borenstein said...

I have noticed that in England, they say CRAW-sohnt, with the accent on the first syllable, rhyming with "DRAW font".

Thomas J. Brown said...

Here in the Northwest, people sometimes pronounce gyros "GY-rows" (as in the aforementioned gyroscope), but more often (and much more annoyingly) they call them "HE-rows." I shudder every time I hear that and have to fight back the urge to pedantically correct complete strangers.

Eliot Lear said...

I love love love sfogliatelle, and it is SO hard to find outside of Italy. If you haven't had it, DON'T unless you're a New Yorker, in which case you can find some in Little Italy cafés, or in San Francisco at certain North Beach Cafés.

D. said...

My first-generation Italian, Brooklyn-born and raised, mother bastardized the words of her native foods so badly that I never deciphered many of them until I was an adult. I was astounded to discover that "gabba-gool" is really cappicola, for instance.

As far as the English, while in Leicester a couple of years ago, I saw a "Beauvoir Street", which the locals said as "beaver". Those kinds of odd pronunciations seem to abound there. I found myself wondering if they might come from their resentment of the French invasion into their language.

By the way, Barry, thanks for mentioning my new blog.

Thomas J. Brown said...

And yet, the Brits have aubergines (eggplant) and courgettes (zucchini), which they pronounce (almost) correctly.

Then again, fillet/filet – which we and the French pronounce fill-ay (ay as in way) – is pronounced fill-it in England.

When I asked her about it, a British family member was unable to explain why some French words are pronounced correctly while others aren't.

Barry Leiba said...

Oh, yes, I'd forgotten about "gabba-gool"! I suspect all that comes from a combination of southern dialect, lower-class pronunciation, and Americanization (even in the first generation).

Like "Beauvoir" are "Belvoir" (also "beaver") and "Beaulieu" (byoo-lee). But it's not limited to French names; "Tagliaferro" is "tolliver" and "Cholmondeley" is "chumley". You mention "Leicester", which is "lester". The Brits have a way with odd pronunciations and swallowing their syllables.

Barry Leiba said...

«And yet, the Brits have aubergines (eggplant) and courgettes (zucchini)»

Yes, and they drop their babies at the crèche on the way to work. Go figure.

A friend has a story about a time he was in England and he was offered vegetables with dinner. The waitress had a plate of four or five choices, and offered them to him in turn.

“Would you like some courgettes?”, she said, offering zucchini. He accepted. Then, “How about some aubergines?” He turned those down.

“What do you call those?”, he said, pointing to some other veg. “We call them ‘carrots’,” she replied. “Would you like some?”

Anonymous said...

Thus the case for learning other languages. At least ignorant Americans will learn how to say things properly. LOL!

Thomas J. Brown said...

Apropos of the discussion is this article I ran across about the top 10 most mispronounced "foodie words." Oh look, there's gyros.

bbc said...

This is a great topic! Whether or not I know how to pronounce the words in question, it always bothers me a little. Sometimes, to avoid being wrong, I just point at menus & say, "I'll have that!"