I just noticed that my local Texas edition of the New York Times for December 5, 2010, included a feature article entitled “If Only Laws Were Like Sausages.” By coincidence, that same day (as I reported in yesterday’s posting), after I wrote about abalorio in this column, a friend said that the word reminded her of abalone, to which I couldn’t resist replying that that was okay as long as the posting didn’t seem like a [lot of] baloney. It’s no baloney to say that Spanish abalorio and English abalone do sometimes remind English speakers of baloney, which is a respelling of the still-in-use bologna. That in turn is a shortening of the older phrase bologna sausage, a clear statement that that popular type of sausage originated in Bologna, Italy.

According to J.E. Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang, speakers of American English as far back as 1920 were using baloney to mean ‘an oafish, stupid, or clumsy person; idiot; worthless individual.’ The citation given from that year was: “Kane Holliday, alias Kid Roberts, had won his first professional fight by knocking out a boloney with the nom du ring of Young Du Fresne.” From the notion of ‘a stupid person’ came the ‘nonsense’ that such a person would say and that is the current colloquial meaning of baloney.

In French and Italian spelling, gn represents the same sound as Spanish ñ (think of French-borrowed English vignette, for example), so it’s surprising that Spanish calls the Italian city of Bologna not *Boloña but Bolonia. However, Spanish reverts to the ñ in the corresponding adjective boloñés ‘having to do with or residing in Bologna.’ English speakers may encounter the Italian cognate bolognese with reference not to baloney but to a spaghetti sauce containing ground meat, tomatoes, and spices; Spanish similarly speaks of salsa boloñesa.

© 2010 Steven Schwartzman


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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