The Mystery Behind Why We Pronounce Bologna as “Baloney”
In case you’ve ever wondered how the funny-looking meat got its funny-sounding name.
Few lunchmeats leave us with more questions than the classic bologna. It’s perfectly round, impossibly pink, and as synonymous with brown bag lunches as juice boxes. But for something so common, most Americans know very little about bologna’s origin.
While we’re not going to get into the exact ingredients used to make the homogenous meat (mostly pork), we do want to explore another bologna mystery: why it's pronounced “baloney” and not “bo-lo-nya.”
Not surprisingly, the answer takes us to Italy. In particular, to the northern town of Bologna (bo-lo-nya), where mortadella, bologna’s kissing cousin, was born. Mortadella is traditional cured sausage made from ground pork. The bologna we know and love was derived from mortadella.
So that clears up how it got its name. As for how we came to pronounce it the way we do, we turn to a recent HuffPost investigation.
Linguist Mark Liberman’s theory is that our bizarre pronunciation follows the pattern of Italian words ending in -ia (Italia, Sicilia, and Lombardia), which took on -y endings in English (Italy, Sicily and Lombardy).
“My hypothesis would be that it’s an instance of the old pattern,” Liberman told HuffPost. “But it’s ‘Bologna’ not ‘Bolognia’, right?”
Others believe that it could have sprung from Italians’ penchant for shortening and altering words like “prosciut” for “prosciutto” and “mozz” or “mozzarel” for “mozzarella.”
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Lexicographer and Wall Street Journal columnist Ben Zimmer told HuffPost that he agrees with Liberman’s theory. “It’s clear that the sausage was called that from the mid-19th century, and I’m sure that was a time when other Italian place names were getting anglicized in that way,” he noted.
By the 1920s, people were using “baloney” (or boloney) to describe non-food-related things. According to HuffPost, writer Harry Charles Witwer referred to a big clumsy boxer as “a boloney” in 1920. It wasn’t long before it was being used as a slang term within the larger world of sports.
“It was at a time when sportswriters in particular were looking for funny words to describe these lumbering boxers,” Zimmer told HuffPost. “And whatever connection they were making to the sausage ― whether it was that they had sausage for brains or they kind of looked like big sausages ― it served its purpose as a funny-sounding word.”
And then somewhere along the line, the “funny-sounding word” took on the definition we use it for today: nonsense.
So, there you have it. As for the exact details regarding how the funny-looking meat got it’s funny-sounding name, we may never know. We’re just sure glad it did.