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July 2, 2009

Slang of the Week: macaroni/Macaroni (noun)
a man whose principal interest in life is to be fashionable (archaic)

Sir Edward Malfreney was a perfect macaroni, with sparkling shoe buckles and a powdered wig so high he could hardly walk upright through doorways.

Celebrity quote
“Yankee Doodle went to town,
Riding on a pony,
He stuck a feather in his cap,
And called it macaroni.”
-Revolutionary War era song

Happy (early) Independence Day! As I begin to prepare for the spectacular Boston fireworks on the Charles River this Saturday, I find myself contemplating this now patriotic song. Originally intended to make fun of Americans, its insult has lost most of its bite, as few today know the eighteenth-century meanings of doodle and macaroni.

As the definition states, a macaroni was a dandy. Rich, young, eighteenth-century Englishmen traveled to Europe and brought back continental fashions, often extreme ones. And they formed their own society, called the Macaroni Club, whose existence was first recorded in 1764. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the name of the people came from the name of the club, not the other way around. (And yes, they also brought back continental food, so the name of the club was related to the then “exotic” Italian pasta.)

Not surprisingly, some felt that men carrying around flowers while wearing ruffled shirts, gigantic wigs and excessive jewelry was less than manly. (Click here for a 1773 illustration of the style.) A 1770 article in Oxford Magazine called them “neither male nor female,” an assessment that still stands--I found a recent scholarly article about the Macaronis entitled “That Doubtful Gender.”

Of course, the Macaronis were not the last men to throw machismo to the wind. You can find the echoes of that exaggerated feminine style throughout history: during the Aesthetic movement (think Oscar Wilde), in the 1960s (think Austin Powers in his neo-Edwardian purple velvet suit) and even today (think the artist formerly and currently known as Prince). However, I would posit that not even 1970s-era Elton John, in his platform-shoes and feather boa, approached the ridiculous heights (literally and figuratively) of the Macaronis.

So back to the holiday, the reference in Yankee Doodle is ironic. Such decadent clothing was both impractical and hard to come by during the War of Independence, and the British were ridiculing colonials for their provincial fashion sense. (Obviously, one feather does not a Macaroni make.) Worse, a doodle was a fool. For those readers who will be in the US this weekend, try to put that out of your mind as you listen to the song being endlessly played by fife and drum corps.

What’s New?
Thai asks about the phrase “get rich or die trying” in Ask AC.

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick Hatchet Jobs and Hardball: The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang by Grant Barrett.