The world of sandwiches is full of debates and mysteries ― like, is a hot dog a sandwich? What about a wrap? Is peanut butter and mayo disgusting or delicious? Are cold cuts going to kill us? And why is that classic lunchmeat spelled “bologna” but pronounced like “baloney”?
That last question is admittedly personal for me. Growing up with the last name Bologna (pronounced “bo-LO-nya”) subjected me to a fair bit of playground teasing (chants of “Caroline Baloney!” and “Phony Baloney!”). To this day, I still hear silly remarks from waiters, store clerks, bouncers and even TSA agents who giggle at the sight of my name on my driver’s license or credit card. And as a reporter, I occasionally get comments from dissatisfied readers along the lines of “The writer’s name is fitting. This is a bunch of baloney.”
I’ve never been too bothered by any of that, but I have always been curious: Why is “baloney” the accepted pronunciation of the word bologna? Or as some have asked in reverse, why is the word we pronounce as “baloney” spelled “bologna”?
The answer goes back to Italy. As you may know, there is a city in northern Italy called Bologna, which is home to many delicious delicacies, including mortadella. Mortadella is traditional cured sausage made from ground pork. The lunchmeat we call bologna or bologna sausage is derived from mortadella, though it doesn’t have to be made from pork (and gets a bad rap as a kind of cheap “mystery meat.”)
So, the “bologna” spelling comes from the Italian city it’s named for. As for the shift from pronouncing it “bo-LO-nya” to saying “baloney,” there are different theories.
Linguist Mark Liberman believes it follows the pattern of Italian words ending in -ia like Italia, Sicilia and Lombardia, which took on -y endings in English, like Italy, Sicily and Lombardy.
“My hypothesis would be that it’s an instance of the old pattern,” he told HuffPost in an email. “But it’s ‘Bologna’ not ‘Bolognia’, right?”
Liberman pointed out, however, that the Oxford English Dictionary says the city of Bologna was “anciently called Bononia” and has also taken the spelling form Bolonia.
Liberman also referenced the theory that “baloney” may derive from the Polari slang word “balonie.”
“But I prefer the -ia―>-y theory, myself,” he added.
Other conjectures involve the fact that Italian-Americans had a knack for shortening and shifting Italian words like “gabagool” for “capicola” and “prosciut” for “prosciutto” ― or even the possible influence of the British word “blarney” or the common Irish last name Maloney. Still, just a general shift from a pronunciation ending in “nya” to more of a “ny” or “ney” sound seems plausible.
Lexicographer and Wall Street Journal columnist Ben Zimmer said he’s inclined to agree with Liberman’s Italia to Italy theory.
“The case of Italian words becoming Anglicized could explain it, without having to talk about these other possible sources like Polari,” he told HuffPost. “I think it’s Occam’s razor. This is the simplest explanation without having to look for correspondences in other languages. 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.”
As Zimmer noted, we know that the “baloney” or “boloney” spelling and pronunciation in reference to the sausage dates back to the 19th century. The earliest example he’s found is a piece of humor from 1857 ― a burlesque sermon containing the phrase “baloney sassage.”
In a 2013 Vocabulary.com column called “How ‘Baloney’ Got Phony,” Zimmer also referenced an old vaudeville song dating back to the 1870s that was called “I Ate the Baloney.”
By the 1920s, people were using “baloney” in other ways. Writer Harry Charles Witwer referred to a big clumsy boxer as “a boloney” in 1920, and from the world of sports, it became a slang term along the lines of galoot and palooka.
“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.”
The “funny-sounding word” came to develop other “funny-sounding meanings” and settled into the definition for baloney we still use today: bullshit.
When it comes to the bullshit or nonsense definition, both Liberman and Zimmer agree that people should use the standard spelling “baloney” rather than “bologna.” Paul Brians, the author of Common Errors in English Usage, echoed that sentiment, writing on his website, “People who write ‘bunch of bologna’ are making a pun or are just being pretentious.”
As for the sausage, both baloney and bologna are accepted spellings, though the famous Oscar Mayer jingle has certainly pushed the latter.
“I think what happened was the standard spelling based on the name of the city stayed in the language as the standard name for the sausage, even though people were already pronouncing it differently,” said Zimmer. “So we have this weird split between the standard city name and this slangy spelling associated with other meanings but also associated with the sausage.”
The lexicographer acknowledged that it would make more sense to use “baloney” if we’re pronouncing it that way, but he added that the English language doesn’t often work that way.
“We get these divergences between pronunciation and spelling just based on historical vicissitudes,” Zimmer explained, noting that words like island and colonel can fall under that category. “These are the things that bedevil English language learners because there’s so much lack of correspondence between spelling and pronunciation because of words often coming from other languages and retaining spelling from that language, even though the pronunciation changed.”
So depending on how you look at it, the way we pronounce or spell bologna is … a bunch of baloney. I’m more inclined to believe the pronunciation is the problem, though I am of course, biased. At least I can say that thanks to Oscar Mayer, people know how to spell my last name ― even if they don’t know how to say it.