Anita Ekberg looking diagonal in the Fontana di Trevi. Fancy imitating her? Don’t even think about it. The fine for dipping as little as a toe is €450.

Of camera-snappers, clams, pasta and gaffes

The other day I was flummoxed by the apostrophe for the possessive of paparazzi (plural): paparazzi’s or paparazzis’?

Which reminded me that learning a language can be fraught with self-embarrassment. Visiting Italy many years back I was discussing the press with friends. Not having spoken la bella lingua for ages, and having only – at the time – recently encountered the word paparazzo, I voiced my doubts about this new, invasive species of photojournalist, the papagalli. Raucous laughter ensued: papagalli are parrots.

But while papagallo is a naturalized Italian word (from Byzantine Greek, from Arabic) paparazzo is an eponym: a word based on someone’s name, like biro or wellies. In Federico Fellini’s classic 1960 La Dolce VitaPaparazzo is the surname of a photographer, the screen character being apparently based on a real-life Roman celeb-snapper of the era, Tazio Secchiaroli.

A unique musicality?

I remember our English master at school, in a lesson about Chaucer, rapturising over the perfect (if unprovable) balance in Italian of consonants and vowels. There is some truth in the idea. Take Pa-pa-raz-zo. Simple syllables, nearly all melodiously alternating consonants and vowels. None of the hideous consonant pile-ups of German. But where this invented surname came from is hotly disputed.

It seems that Fellini amused himself by telling contradictory versions of the name’s genesis. In one interview he noted that it suggested a ‘buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging’, which does not explain where it came from. He also said he found it in an opera libretto. In the dialect of one of the co-scriptwriters, Ennio Flaiano, the feminine noun paparazza is a clam and thus a way of describing a camera shutter. But Flaiano also claimed that either he or Fellini opened a translated travel book by Georg Gissing at random and lighted on a restaurant owner rejoicing in the name of Coriolano Paparazzo. Finally, Fellini’s wife claimed it was a portmanteau of pappatacio (sand fly) and ragazzo (boy). Whatever its origin, the ending –azzo is often pejorative (and cazzo for the membrum virile is a stand-alone oath.)

Violating incoming words

When English nabs a word from another language, it often does naughty things to it. After all, spaghetti is plural in Italian and takes plural verbs, but it’s a mass noun in English with a singular verb.* ‘These spaghetti are delicious’ could only be said by a lunatic. And ‘a panini’ seems pretty solidly established: to ask for a panino would be to indulge in pedantic one-upmanship.

With paparazzo, first filched in 1961, for example, English has taken what is technically the plural paparazzi and treated it as singular – since 1981:

1981   Washington Post (Nexis) 8 Oct.   Jackie [sc. Kennedy/Onassis] wanted to sue that photographer, that paparazzi that was taking pictures of her.

Because paparazzi generally hunt in packs, the plural form paparazzi is much more frequent than the singular, which might reinforce the trend to treat it as singular. But if paparazzi is a singular, what is the plural? In 1995  the Grauniad proffered paparazzos, but that doesn’t really seem to have taken off.

17 June Even the scummiest paparazzos put their cameras away when I ask them not to take pictures of my kids.

If paparazzi is a singular, then logically the plural is paparazzis, and that does crop up:

I wouldn’t represent any clients that want me to tip paparazzis to tell them so that they can intrude on their personal lives
CNN transcripts.

But generally, the one form is rushed off its feet snapping singularly and plurally. Hence the query with which I started this.

As someone pointed out, the basic children/women rule must apply: to a plural noun which does not end in –s, add an apostrophe and then a letter s. Thus, ‘the paparazzi’s cameras’, which is, however, still ambiguous between singular and plural, hence my original cavil.

As we began with a mistake in Italian, so we’ll end with a hoary old one that I was reminded of recently. A tourist in Siena wants a room with a view over those evocative, terracotta (there’s another Italian word for you) red-tiled rooftops. The Italian for roof is il tetto, a masculine noun, plural tetti. But the tourist says Vorrei una camera con una bella vista sulle tette, ‘I’d like a room with a beautiful view of tits.’

*The singular spaghetto for a strand exists in English. But I bet most people would feel as berkish as I would to exclaim, for example, ‘You’ve just dropped a spaghetto on the floor.’ Surely it’s a bit or a strand or a string of spaghetti, or even a noodle?







  1. All hail His noodly appendage!

    Also…one lasagna, two lasagne…but we still call the multi-layered dish lasagna in English. In French we add an “s” to the plural for good measure: des lasagnes, des spaghettis, des raviolis…et des paparazzis!

    Liked by 1 person

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