The Final Word: Confetti

A linguist, lexicologist and creator of the Petit Robert dictionaries, the eminent specialist of the French language, Alain Rey, dissects a word that rhymes with end-of-the-year party: confetti.

The enormous number of Italian words adopted by the French language includes the fields of art, music and pasta, but also the joy of the carnival — also an Italian word — with that most useless and pleasant of objects: Confetti. Our contemporary society sees confetti as a cloud of brightly colored paper and streamers, adopted by petit bourgeois festivities along with other childish distractions. But we forget the etymology of the word, which reveals its rather unexpected origins. Confetto, close to the word “comfit,” has been separated from “confectionary” and confiture (“jam”, in French), despite sharing the same roots. Before it took the light and ethereal form known today, confetti — when used by Stendhal in his letters in 1842 — actually referred to small balls of colorful plaster. One can only imagine the injuries incurred during carnival celebrations. These inedible little pellets mimicked another objects — that the French language describes with the rather silly word bonbons (“candy”). For this sugary equivalent, the Italian word confetto was used to vaguely describe the way it was made. In actual fact, the verb confire in Italian only means “to make,” but was used as far back as the Middle Ages to describe fruit transformed into candy using sugar and honey. If we look at the Russian language, Italian confetti has become Konfieta, meaning sugary treats and candy. The German word Konfikt adds to this concept by applying it to jam. As the French judged they had more than enough terms in the field of confectionary, they only took the carnival-like, inedible aspect of the Italian confetti, as depicted in the Italian language by the expression confetti di gesso, translated as “plaster candies” (gesso: “gypsum”). Alongside the original plaster confetti, our interpretation is known as coriandoli, “cilantro” in Italian. And so in this culinary carnival (note the presence of carne, “meat”) everything seems to gravitate around edible objects, disguised as fluttering decorations. A negation of orality, perhaps? Or maybe a psychedelic refusal of all comfits, confectionary and others? Whatever the explanation, the original confetti will always been enjoyed al dente, of course.

Column published in the December 2008 issue of France-Amérique.


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