Morning: mandolin, mandoline

This morning’s name was mandolin, the musical instrument (in the lute family). And that led almost immediately to mandoline, the kitchen utensil (a vegetable shredder). They turn out to be very closely related.

Wikipedia offers a virtual encyclopedia of things mandolin-related. The beginning of the article, plus some highlights from later in it:

A mandolin (Italian: mandolino; literally “small mandola”) is a musical instrument in the lute family and is usually plucked with a plectrum or “pick”. It commonly has four courses of doubled strings tuned in unison (8 strings), although five (10 strings) and six (12 strings) course versions also exist. The courses are normally tuned in a succession of perfect fifths. It is the soprano member of a family that includes the mandola, octave mandolin, mandocello, and mandobass.


A modern mandolin orchestra: from top left, clockwise: 1920 Gibson F-4 mandolin, 1917 Gibson H-2 mandola, 1929 Gibson mando-bass, and 1924 Gibson K-4 mandocello (from Gregg Miner’s collection)

There are many styles of mandolin, but three are common, the Neapolitan or round-backed mandolin, the carved-top mandolin and the flat-backed mandolin. The round-back has a deep bottom, constructed of strips of wood, glued together into a bowl. The carved-top or arch-top mandolin has a much shallower, arched back, and an arched top—both carved out of wood. The flat-backed mandolin uses thin sheets of wood for the body, braced on the inside for strength in a similar manner to a guitar. Each style of instrument has its own sound quality and is associated with particular forms of music. Neapolitan mandolins feature prominently in European classical music and traditional music. Carved-top instruments are common in American folk music and bluegrass music. Flat-backed instruments are commonly used in Irish, British and Brazilian folk music. Some modern Brazilian instruments feature an extra fifth course tuned a fifth lower than the standard fourth course.

… Much of mandolin development revolved around the soundboard (the top). Pre-mandolin instruments were quiet instruments, strung with as many as six courses of gut strings, and were plucked with the fingers or with a quill. However, modern instruments are louder — using four courses of metal strings, which exert more pressure than the gut strings. The modern soundboard is designed to withstand the pressure of metal strings that would break earlier instruments. The soundboard comes in many shapes — but generally round or teardrop-shaped, sometimes with scrolls or other projections. There is usually one or more sound holes in the soundboard, either round, oval, or shaped like a calligraphic F (f-hole). A round or oval sound hole may be covered or bordered with decorative rosettes or purfling [‘an ornamental border’].

Various sorts of lutes were the precursors (going back to ancient times) of the metal-stringed mandolins, which appear in Italy in the 18th century.

… [The] era … from the late 19th-Century into the early 20th-Century… has come to be known as the “Golden Age” of the mandolin. The term is used online by mandolin enthusiasts to name the time period when the mandolin had become popular, when mandolin orchestras were being organized worldwide, and new and high-quality instruments were increasingly common.

… Many classical composers composed works specifically for the Mandolin. Beethoven composed mandolin music and enjoyed playing the mandolin. The opera Don Giovanni by Mozart includes mandolin parts, including the accompaniment to the famous aria Deh vieni alla finestra, and Verdi’s opera Otello calls for guzla accompaniment in the aria Dove guardi splendono raggi, but the part is commonly performed on mandolin. Also very well known are the mandolin concerti by Vivaldi. Gustav Mahler used the mandolin in his Symphony No. 7, Symphony No. 8 and Das Lied von der Erde. Some 20th-century classical composers also used the mandolin as their instrument of choice (amongst these are: Schoenberg, Webern, Stravinsky).

A performance of the “Canzonetta” from Don Giovanni by baritone and mandolin on YouTube:

Next the kitchen utensil. Wooden vegetable slicers have been known for some time (perhaps as far back as the 16th century), but the metal versions are relatively recent, from about 1930. A description of the utensil from Wikipedia:

A mandoline [pronounced in English like mandolin, with primary accent on final syllable and the vowel /ɪ/ there] is a cooking utensil used for slicing and for cutting juliennes; with suitable attachments, it can make crinkle-cuts.

A mandoline consists of two parallel working surfaces, one of which can be adjusted in height. A food item is slid along the adjustable surface until it reaches a blade mounted on the fixed surface, slicing it and letting it fall.

Other blades perpendicular to the main blade are often mounted so that the slice is cut into strips. The mandoline juliennes in several widths and thicknesses. It also makes slices, waffle cuts and crinkle cuts, and dices firm vegetables and fruits.


But now we have the question of names. The etymology for the instrument name, from NOAD2:

ORIGIN early 18th cent.: from French mandoline, from Italian mandolino, diminutive of mandola [historical: an early stringed instrument of the mandolin or cittern type]

OED3 (Sept. 2000)’s first cite for the instrument name in English is from 1707; for the shredder name not until 1951 (Elizabeth David, French Country Cooking; and David remarks on the name in French, which she clearly takes to be a metaphorical transfer from the instrument name).

The spelling and pronunciation of the two names is a complicated matter. The instrument name is now spelled only mandolin, and it’s not pronounced as in French, though it can have either a French-like accent pattern (with primary accent on the final syllable) or an anglicized one (with primary accent on the first syllable), but in either case has the vowel /ɪ/ in the final syllable.

The shredder name, on the other hand, looks like a much more recent import from French. It can be spelled mandolin, but it is much more frequently spelled mandoline. It can be pronounced in French, or it can have the pronunciations just listed for instrument name.

Then there’s the connection between the instrument name and the shredder name. Regardless of the vintage of the shredders as objects, the mandolin(e) name for them (in both French and English) is clearly much more recent than the name for the instruments in those languages, suggesting that the name for the shredders comes from the name for the instruments. Several sources note that footed shredders (as in #2) are relatively recent, and speculate that until recently the shredders were “played” like the instruments, dropping their shreddings into a bowl.

One Response to “Morning: mandolin, mandoline”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Todd Yampol on Facebook:

    In Japan, the mandoline slicer is called a “benriner” (possibly a brand name that became generic). It has an amusing etymology. It’s a romanized version of the Japanese expression “benri na!” which means something like “wow, it’s so useful”.

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