Daily Archives: April 19, 2011

confetti

Confetti! The very word bespeaks not just the flurry of fluttery little paper particles but the fete that it flatters. Can’t you see the glitterati (perhaps a return tour of Scritti Politti, or Little Richard singing “Tutti Frutti”) in an open-top Bugatti (or a vaporetto in Venice), tossing dolcetti and other confections (but no confit – that would be discomfiting), then trotting into a palazzo as the paparazzi pop a smattering of titillating photographs?

Just two questions: How did we get in the habit of tossing paper bits (perhaps fresh from the base of your hole-puncher or the bin of your shredder) for celebration at weddings and similar parties? And why do we call these shreddies “confections”?

“Confections”? Why, yes. Well, more exactly, sugared almonds, which is what confetti means in Italian. Surely you’ve had them at some fete sometime, especially if Italians were involved (I most recently had them at just such a do for a relation’s first communion). Perhaps visions of them danced in your head at some point in your childhood – after all, such sugared fruits, nuts, or seeds were also, even a century ago, called sugar-plums. But another name for them is comfits.

Which is, as you see, close to confetti. Fair enough; they come from the Latin conficere, “make ready”, from con “with” and facere “make”. So does that mean that a baby from which candy is taken is literally discomfited? Well, discomfit is cognate with comfit, but the split in meaning goes a bit farther back – it’s just an opposite to “make ready”.

And that is also the root of confit, as in that tough preserved duck you can get in fancy restaurants – it’s been immersed in something just as the comfits have. Now, I’m sure if someone were throwing confit at you you would want it confiscated (though confiscate is not cognate with confit), but would you be happy if they were pelting you with candied almonds?

I mean, sweets are very nice, and there’s a long history of throwing them at people to show approbation and good wishes. This was especially so during carnival time in Venice. (Beads make do similarly in some contexts now.) But they can cost money, and they can also hurt.

It seems that the money consideration comes foremost, for early substitutes for the bon-bons thrown during carnival time in Venice included some made of plaster, which can also hurt and leave marks. Paper, of course, was cheaper still, and more innocuous, so it ultimately prevailed. And it also made a nice substitute for rice, which, along with other grains, was traditionally thrown at weddings to symbolize showers of blessings from above. (By the way, birds will not explode if they eat dry rice. Rice needs to be cooked to swell, and it can’t swell beyond the volume of the liquid it’s immersed in, which is what it absorbs to swell.) So it spread from carnival to other sorts of carnality.

Which leads me to mention that confetti is an anagram of to infect. Make of that what you will (as little as possible, I hope). I should also say, though, that it is an anaphone (rearrangement of sounds, not letters) of phonetic – or close enough (a slight difference in one vowel). And in Italian, the spelling of confetti is phonetic… in English, however, we shred it just a little.