The meaning of pasta names
Let’s look at a selection of words for different types of pasta. Unsurprisingly, many pasta names are simply the Italian for the shape in which the pasta comes, but they may well surprise anybody who doesn’t speak the language.
Pasta squares stuffed with a variety of fillings, like small ravioli. The name is probably from the Italian anello (‘ring’), perhaps with allusion to the shape given to this variety of pasta in some regions by wrapping each piece around a finger. An alternative theory identifies the first element of Italian agnolotti as agnello lamb, although this is not supported by the earliest evidence in Italian.
Rolls of pasta stuffed with a meat or vegetable mixture (or a dish consisting of cannelloni cooked in a cheese sauce). Cannelloni literally means ‘large tubes’, from cannello (‘tube’).
Pasta in the form of small conch shells – and literally the Italian for ‘conch shells’.
Small pieces of pasta shaped like bows or butterflies’ wings; the plural of farfalla (‘butterfly’).
Pasta made in ribbons; the plural of the Italian fettuccina is a diminutive of fettuccia tape, ribbon, which itself is a diminutive formation from fetta (‘a slice, portion’).
Pasta pieces in the form of short spirals; literally ‘little spindles’ in Italian, and the diminutive of fuso. Fuso (and thus from the Latin fusus) is also the root of the English word fuse, in the sense ‘a length of material along which a small flame moves to explode a bomb or firework’. The verb to fuse (‘join or blend to form a single entity’) is derived from a different Latin word – fundere (‘pour, melt’).
Pasta in the form of two short rods twisted around each other. Gemelli literally means ‘twins’ in Italian. It is related to the Latin word for twin that gives the name of the star sign Gemini.
Pasta in the form of sheets or wide strips, or an Italian dish consisting of lasagne baked with meat or vegetables and a cheese sauce. The plural of lasagna, this developed from the Latin lasanum, which had the sense ‘chamber pot’, and perhaps, it has been suggested, ‘cooking pot’.
Small pieces of pasta in the form of narrow ribbons. Linguine is the plural of linguina which is, in turn, the diminutive of lingua (‘tongue’). Linguine thus shares the same Latin root as language and linguistics.
Pasta in the shape of narrow tubes, from the Italian maccaroni (now usually spelled maccheroni), plural of maccarone. It is possible that this comes from late Greek makaria meaning ‘food made from barley’, although other etymologies from Greek have also been suggested. In 18th-century Britain, macaroni was also used of dandies who imitated continental fashions, probably after the name of the Macaroni Club, which consisted of such men.
Pasta in the form of medium-sized tubes (or a dish consisting mainly of this); the plural of the Italian mezzano meaning ‘middle’, which is also the root of mezzanine.
A variety of pasta in the shape of short, hollow tubes with diagonally cut ends, or a dish consisting of this. Mostacciolo is the Italian for a sweet spiced biscuit; both the biscuits and the pasta tubes typically have a rhomboid shape. There is no evidence for the folk etymology that mostaccioli relates to the Italian regional mostaccio (‘moustache’).
Small pieces of ear-shaped pasta – translating from Italian literally as ‘little ears’.
Small pieces of pasta, shaped like grains of barley or rice. Orzo translates literally as ‘barley’.
Pasta in the form of broad flat ribbons, usually served with a meat sauce. This is one to eat when you’re feeling starving, as it’s from pappare meaning ‘eat hungrily’.
One of the most common shapes of pasta available (in short wide tubes), penne is the plural of penna, the Italian for ‘quill’ or (more recognizably) ‘pen’.
A variety of pasta in the form of long hollow strands of larger diameter than spaghetti. Perciatelli is a regional diminutive form of perciato, the past participle of perciare (‘to pierce’).
As a mass noun: pasta in the form of square, circular, or semicircular envelopes with a filling of cheese, vegetables, or meat, usually served with a sauce. The origin of the word is unknown; it has frequently been a considered of the Italian regional rava (a variant of rapa) meaning ‘turnip’, with the assumption that the filling originally consisted of turnips, but this does not appear to have been the case. The post-classical Latin raviolus and rabiola – both denoting a kind of meatball – have also been suggested.
Pasta in the form of short hollow fluted tubes, relating to the Italian word rigare (‘to draw a line, to scratch).
A variety of pasta made in the shape of small wagon-wheels; the plural of rotella meaning ‘small wheel’ (from ruota meaning ‘wheel’). Rotella is found as early as the fifteenth century with reference to items of food, although the name of the pasta rotelle is North American and not yet found before the 1950s. Ruote pasta, in a similar shape, also stems from ruota, and is first found in the 1970s, according to current OED research.
A variety of pasta in the form of small corkscrew-like spirals or twists; rotini literally means ‘small wheels’ in Italian.
One of the most famous forms of pasta, made in long, thin strings, the name spaghetti literally means ‘thin strings, twine’. It has also lent its name to Spaghetti Junction, specifically a major traffic interchange on the M6 near Birmingham, and also used more widely (without capitalization) for any complex multi-level road junctions or, figuratively, a tangle of overlapping and intertwining lengths or parts, such as cables.
Small squares of pasta rolled round a filling and then formed into a ring shape. Tortellini is the plural of tortellino, which is the diminutive of tortello (meaning ‘cake, fritter’) which, in turn, is the diminutive of torta (‘round loaf, cake’).
Pasta in the form of long, slender threads. Rather unappetizingly, vermicelli relates to verme, meaning ‘worm’. In Britain the word vermicelli is also used of the shreds of chocolate used to decorate cakes or other sweet foods.