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I remember sometime around 1980 that people started calling pasta... "pasta". I was in a used book store this past weekend and stumbled across two copies of the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, one from the early seventies and one a more recent vintage. I looked at the index from each. Sure enough, "pasta" does not have an entry in the 1970's edition, but figures prominently in the more current edition.

Who or what caused the word "pasta" to be commonly used as an umbrella term for spaghetti, farfalle, linguini, etc.?

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    Amazingly, nobody has mentioned the word "noodles." When I was a kid, that was the ordinary word -- lasagna noodles included. When I started hearing "pasta" I thought it was a strange attempt to make cheap, plain food sound fancy. Now the word "noodles" sounds sort of funny to me, almost a joke for its lack of class.
    – Chaim
    Sep 16, 2022 at 3:16
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    @Chaim This terminology seems to be quite location-dependent. In the UK, ‘noodles’ refers only to the stranded East-Asian food, not to pasta (which is often not even the same shape!). Here, ‘lasagna noodles’ seems like a meaningless combination of random words, like ‘fried egg custard’ (or ‘chicken fried steak’…).
    – gidds
    Sep 16, 2022 at 10:22
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    The word "pasta" does not even appear in the Compact OED, including the supplement. Sep 16, 2022 at 10:56
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    @Chaim Oh, I wasn't doubting your sense at all! I've seen it several times before — on this site and elsewhere — so it's clearly widely used in your part of the world. It just caused me some confusion the first few times I saw it, until I realised that the word's used differently in different places. (That's the trouble with language variations. If you've never seen a word before, your lack of knowledge is obvious; words that you think you know are the really dangerous ones!)
    – gidds
    Sep 16, 2022 at 13:57
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    Sticking with cookbooks -- my 1951 Joy of Cooking calls it pasta; the 1931 calls them noodles. Sep 16, 2022 at 14:51

3 Answers 3

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According to Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary, the word pasta has appeared in English publications since at least 1847—but you wouldn't know it by checking editions of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary prior to the seventh edition (1963). That's when the first entry for pasta appeared in the Collegiate series, as follows:

pasta n {It[alian], fr. L[ate] L[atin]} 1 : a paste in processed form (as spaghetti) or in the form of fresh dough (as ravioli) 2 : a dish of cooked pasta

Prior to the Seventh Collegiate, the only term that Webster's offered for the generic category of (usually) eggless noodles now generally termed pasta was paste, as in this relevant definition from a longer entry for that word in the Sixth Collegiate (1948) suggests:

paste, n. 1. Dough; specif.: ... b Any shaped and dried dough prepared from semolina, farina, or wheat flour, or a mixture of these with water (as in macaroni, spaghetti, vermicelli), milk, or egg.

Because of confounding alternative meanings, there is little point in tracking the frequency of paste over the past 120 years in Google Ngram, but an expansion of the Ngram that GEdgar provides for pasta (blue line) and spaghetti (red line) to include macaroni (green line), noodles (yellow line), and vermicelli (dark blue line) over the period 1900–2019 yields an interesting set of line plots:

The most surprising thing to me about this chart is the relative newness of the word noodles: in 1900, the only word of the four track that had any significant frequency of usage in published work was macaroni.

A search through US English dictionaries yields some insight into which words were in use when and with what meanings.

Published only a few decades after the heyday of "Yankee Doodle," Noah Webster's A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806) has this entry for macaroni:

*Macaroni, n. a fop, fribble, finical fellow, paste

The same dictionary devotes no space to paste in the specific sense of something edible:

Paste, n. a thick mixture of solids and fluids, a cement

Sounds yummy. Neither spaghetti nor noodle has any entry in the 1806 Compendious Dictionary, but to my surprise, there is an entry for vermicelli:

Vermicelli, n. a paste made like threds, a soop.

Webster's much larger An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) has nothing for spaghetti, but the other four words are at least mentioned, although only one seems much related to pasta in the modern sense:

MACARONI, n. {It. maccheroni, a sort of paste ; Fr. macaroni ; Gr. μαχαρ, happy.} 1. A kind of biscuit made of flour, eggs, sugar, and almonds, and dressed with butter and spices. B. Jonson 2. A sort of droll or fool, and hence, a fop ; a fribble ; a finical fellow.

NOODLE, n. A simpleton. {A vulgar word.}

PASTE, n. {Fr. pâte, for paste ; It. Sp. pasta. Qu. L. pistus or Gr. πασσω, to sprinkle, or some root which signifies to mix and knead.} 1. A soft composition of substances, as flour moistened with water or milk and kneaded, or any kind of earth moistened and formed to the consistency of dough. Paste made of flour is used in cookery ; paste made of flour or earth, is used in various arts and manufactures, as cement.

VERMICELLI, n. {It. vermicello, a little worm, from vermis, a worm.} In cookery, little rolls or threads of paste, or a composition of flour, eggs, sugar and saffron ; used in soups and pottages.

An American Dictionary of the English Language (1847)—the first Merriam Brothers version of Webster's Dictionary exhibits a much clearer idea than its predecessors did of macaroni as pasta:

MACARONI, n. ... 1. Dough of whet flour made into a tubular or pipe form, of the thickness of a goose quill ; Italian or Genoese paste. ...

Paste, too, receives more detailed treatment in its relevant senses:

PASTE, n. ... 1. A soft composition of substances, as flour moistened with water or milk and kneaded, or any kind of earth moistened and formed into the consistence of dough, as in making potter's ware. 2. A kind of cement made of flour and water boiled, used for uniting paper or other substances

But noodle is still only a simpleton, vermicelli is still associated with "a composition of flour, eggs, sugar and saffron," and spaghetti is nowhere to be found.

The last of the three major editions of An American Dictionary of the English language (1864) is the first to define vermicelli in the pasta sense that people today are familiar with:

Vermicelli, n. ... The flour of a hard and small grained wheat made into dough, and forced through slender cylinders or pipes till it takes a slender, worm-like form, whence the Italian name.

Noodle finally makes the grade as a foodstuff in Webster's International Dictionary (1890):

Noodle, n. {G. nudel vermicelli.} A thin strip of dough, made with eggs, rolled up, cut into small pieces, and used in soup.

Spaghetti debuts in the same dictionary, with this entry:

Spaghetti n. {It.} A variety of macaroni made in tubes of small diameter.

And the entry for vermicelli, after repeating the definition from the 1864 An American Dictionary adds this note about how to distinguish between vermicelli and macaroni:

When the paste is made in larger tubes, it is called macaroni.

As of Webster's First Collegiate Dictionary (1898), this is where the relevant definitions stand:

Macaroni n. 1. Long slender tubes made of a paste chiefly of wheat flour, and used as food.

Noodle n. Dough, made with eggs, cut into small pieces, and used in soup.

Paste n. 1. A soft composition, as of moistened flour or earth. 2. Specif., in cookery, pastry dough.

Spaghetti, n. A variety of macaroni made in tubes of small diameter.

Vermicelli, n. Wheat flour made into a slender wormlike form : — whence the Italian name.

At least in the United States, macaroni, paste, and vermicelli appear in dictionaries in the context of food as far back as 1806. Noodle and spaghetti follow in 1890. But of the five words tracked in the Google Ngram above, none seems particularly negatively affected by the rise of pasta. Instead, their frequencies since 1970 seem to have risen slightly, though at a much less impressive trajectory than pasta has. And when you add paste (pink line) to the mix, just to see whether its frequency dropped as pasta's rose, you find that it rose too between 1970 and 2010:

So the rise of pasta seems, above all, to be due to an increase in interest in foods of the pasta group, not due to a zero-sum change in popularity of one term at the expense of another.

Still, you may wonder why English speakers jumped aboard the pasta train when they had a perfectly good English word (paste) that could be (and for many years had been) used to refer to the same generic category of starchy foods. One answer, surely, is that pasta arose not in the context of all noodle-like starches, but in the context of the specifically Italian subset of such starches—their abbondanza notwithstanding.

A second, more speculative answer relates to what I call "commercial correctness": companies are very keen not to have sales of their products hurt by issues of nomenclature. This is evident in such changes in food wordings as mahi-mahi (for dolphin [the fish, not the mammal], orange roughy (for slimehead), chevon (for goat meat), and canola oil (for rapeseed oil). It may be that purveyors of spaghetti- or macaroni-like foodstuffs felt that the generic term paste was sufficiently unappetizing to put a damper on public enthusiasm for the food category, whereas pasta sounded exotic, appealing, and unambiguously culinary.

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    are those n-gram graphs for US English? From the surrounding text being specific to US English I'd assume so, but it may be worth clarifying as usage here is very different between the US & UK today
    – Tristan
    Sep 16, 2022 at 13:40
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    The ngram for "paste" can be misleading because we also have paste foods that aren't pasta, such as "tomato paste".
    – Barmar
    Sep 16, 2022 at 14:35
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    @Barmer: The Ngram for paste is rife with complicating variables, including paste as a glue alternative, paste as a consistency description, paste as a fake gem, and paste as a verb. The only reason I included it at all (in the second Ngram chart was to show that there was no appreciable decline in the multitude of uses of paste during the period (1970–2010 when pasta went from uncommon to quite common in English publications. So unless there was a countervailing increase in some other use of paste that masked its loss to pasta, it wasn't much affected by that word's rise.
    – Sven Yargs
    Sep 16, 2022 at 15:38
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    @PM2Ring Copy pasta leads to spaghetti code.
    – CJ Dennis
    Sep 17, 2022 at 23:17
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    @SvenYargs In Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged (principal copyright 1961) an entry for pasta appears with these two senses: “1 : alimentary paste in processed form (as spaghetti or macaroni) or in the form of fresh dough (as ravioli) 2 : a dish of cooked pasta”. // They give for its stressed vowel that of FATHER as we still say today here, not that of TRAP as heard in the UK (let alone of FACE said by no one). My copy is 1981’s … and Seven Language Dictionary printing in case that matters, although I suspect it does not.
    – tchrist
    Sep 18, 2022 at 19:50
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Ngram suggests it was around 1980.

image

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    I woulda said it was “in the ‘70s”
    – Jim
    Sep 15, 2022 at 20:07
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    "pasta" is a general term, whereas "spaghetti" is a particular shape of pasta. I grew up in an Italian-American family, and in the '40s and 50s, even into the '60s, all shapes were referred to as "macaroni" although current definitions have macaroni as a particular shape. Wikipedia says that some Italian-American groups are known to have used "macaroni" as a general term. My Sicilian grandmother and my Neapolitan grandfather never used the word "pasta" unless they were talking about pasta e fagioli. Usually we referred to each shape specifically. How it was in the old country I don't know.
    – dclxvispqr
    Sep 15, 2022 at 20:40
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    This answers the when part of the question, but not the why part. A reasonable hypothesis is that it is around that time that the supermarkets and restaurants in English-speaking countries started offering a wider range of different kinds of pasta, which on one side, created a greater awareness of the differences among them, and on the other, created the need for a term that encompasses them all.
    – jsw29
    Sep 15, 2022 at 22:25
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    Among the books I inherited from my aunt is a book on Italian cookery originally published in 1958, when Mediterranean food was just beginning to be widely known in the UK. The section 'Pasta' explains The Italian term 'pasta' covers a multitude of various shapes and forms of what we tend to lump together in our minds under the heading of 'macaroni' or 'spaghetti'. Like Jim, I remember it as being the late 60s/early 70s that interest in foreign cuisine really took off. Sep 16, 2022 at 8:23
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Supposedly, pasta salad and pasta primavera became popular menu items in the early 80s, which was also reflected in pop culture.

Don’t forget the wide range of ’80s movies that reflect ’80s food trends, such as the above-mentioned Baby Boom, as well as Wall Street, which sees Charlie Sheen’s character enjoying an over-the-top apartment redesign, complete with a fully-stocked kitchen that includes yuppie staples like a sushi maker and a pasta maker (see images above and below).

Anecdotally, based on the comments

[T]he reason we ate so much pasta and bread is that fat, not carbs, was the big health scare at the time. Everyone tried to eat low or no fat. We didn’t even distinguish between good and bad fats. For example, butter was considered bad for you (due to fat and cholesterol), so we all used margarine, which turned out to be worse for us.

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    But we just called it oleo.
    – Jim
    Sep 16, 2022 at 1:19
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    @Jim, I'm not sure where you're from, but in California the word oleo was long gone by the 1980's. I don't remember ever encountering it (except as a crossword puzzle word) in my lifetime (which goes back to the 1970's).
    – The Photon
    Sep 16, 2022 at 2:17
  • @ThePhoton - I go back a little farther than that but I guess picked it up from my parents. I can also say that many called it margarine during that same time period.
    – Jim
    Sep 16, 2022 at 3:27
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    @Jim My mom still said "oleo" when I was growing up in the 1990s (U.S. Midwest). But I seem to recall that there was a distinction: oleo comes in a stick and you use it for baking; margarine comes in a tub and you spread it on bread. Maybe that was because she was working from her mother's recipes, which would have called it "oleo." This might be worth its own question!
    – DLosc
    Sep 16, 2022 at 16:02
  • @Jim Oleo is short for oleomargarine. Wikipedia's article is very interesting: [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margarine]
    – dclxvispqr
    Sep 17, 2022 at 0:05

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