Tiramisu

« previous post | next post »

I feel ashamed. I am so unobservant that I never noticed before that the name of the Italian dessert called tiramisu is simply the Italian phrase that translates into English as “pull me up”. And I never noticed that until last Thursday night when I happened to eat at an Italian restaurant in Edinburgh (Librizzi, on North Castle Street) with a menu that translated the Italian word on the dessert list into the English phrase pick-me-up.

I’m a disgrace to my profession for not noticing the internal structure. The tir- root is common to most Romance languages, and means “pull”, and I knew that. The pronoun mi means “me”, as even a child might guess. And su “up” is from the same Latin root as the sup- of superimpose or superscript. There are even additional clues in the stress pattern, as my colleague Bob Ladd pointed out to me: it’s tiramisú, just like pull me úp. If it were a single Italian word ending in a vowel it would probably be stressed on the penultimate syllable, like geláto (or perhaps on the syllable before that). But Italian has hardly any polysyllabic words with final stressed u. In other words, the phrasal status of this word (as a phrase it would be spelled tirami sú) was written all over it for those who can read the signs. And I am supposed to be able to read such signs.

The best I can do after this sorry admission of inattention and morphological obtuseness is to draw a moral, and it is this: Ordinary folks don’t do as much analysis of the internal structure of words as morphologists and etymologists do. I was just operating like ordinary folks in this case.

Children notice the least. I am not at all sure that when I was a child I had noticed the connection that this and morning had to the expression this morning, which I heard and pronounced as the smorning. But even adult ordinary folks never notice that filth is in origin foul + -th with a vowel change in the stem. They may not even have noticed that truth is true combined with a -th suffix that also shows up in youth (young + -th with a vowel change and loss of -ng), width (wide + -th with a vowel change), breadth (broad + -th with a vowel change), and depth (deep + -th with a vowel change).

It is quite likely they will not have noticed the relationship between horror and horrify. They certainly will not normally have wondered about the gaps in this table of what ought to be parallel cases of word formation (the struck-out forms are expected words that do not exist in my vocabulary — your mileage may differ but you don’t need to write to me to point out what you found in the OED):

candor   candify   candific   candid   candible
fervor fervify fervific fervid fervible
horror horrify horrific horrid horrible
liquor liquefy liquific liquid liquible
livor livify livific livid livible
lucor lucify lucific lucid lucible
pallor pallify pallific pallid pallible
rigor rigify rigific rigid rigible
stupor stupefy stupific stupid stupible
terror terrify terrific terrid terrible
torpor torpify torpific torpid torpible
vigor vigify vigific vigid vigible
tepor tepify tepific tepid tepible

But of course I notice such things. It is part of my job description. I really should have noticed the morphological composition of tiramisu, even in a word with an Italian origin. Lose ten points, Geoff.

[Comments are closed because I couldn’t bear to read fifty people saying “Oh, I knew that”, or “How could you not have noticed?”, or “I found some old citations for tepify in the OED!”, or “Why didn’t you just have the profiteroles?” (I did), or “My uncle Joe in Milwaukee speaks Italian”, or “I know a nice Italian restaurant near Milwaukee”, or “I was in Milwaukee last year for my cousin’s wedding” . . . You know how you get.]



Comments are closed.