*If you happen to order this in Venice, or elsewhere in Italy, or even in an Italian restaurant, try to stifle your completely reasonable impulse to put the stress on the second syllable (officially the penult, second from the rear) of fegato. Unfortunately, for you and other logical folk not totally fluent in Italian, fegato is accented on its first syllable (the antepenult, third back); it looks like all those other Italian words ending in -ato and even in -gato that are accented on the penult. But they are past participles of first conjugation verbs whose infinitives end in -are, including words common in English or on menus: legato, affogato.
Fegato, on the other hand is a noun, which, like its French cognate foie, comes not from the Latin noun for liver, jecur, but from the noun ficatum, a liver from a goose fed on figs, an ur-foie gras.
We know from a graffito at Pompeii that this delicacy started out as jecur ficatum, a figged liver, but then got curtailed to plain ficatum. So why didn’t this participle get accented on the penult like all the others I’ve mentioned?
Pliny the Younger wrote an eyewitness account of the eruption of the Mt. Vesuvius in the year 79. His father, Pliny the Elder, died in the conflagration, and the city of Pompeii was buried—and thereby preserved—in ash. Unfortunately, neither Pliny nor anyone else explained how the Pompeiian delicacy ficatum was pronounced. The poet Horace referred (in Satires 2.88) to the liver of a white goose fattened with lush figs (pinguibus et ficis pastum iecur anseris albae), but the lovely line doesn’t include our participle, only a form of the noun for fig (ficus). But the fig may well be the explanation for the/e-gato conundrum.
Italian took over the Latin ficus and converted it to fico. Along the way, fig acquired an obscene second meaning, the equivalent of cunt. Wily Italians then invented a new word almost exactly like fico, except for the last letter. Fica became the official dirty word for vulva (in classical Latin, the preferred spelling was volva, which basically meant a cover or wrapping, and, by extension, the uterus), as well as the name for an obscene gesture in which the thumb is placed between the index and middle finger and then thrust upward.
My friend Paul Levy, the Kentucky-born British food writer, once hosted a dinner in London for a group of foodies. He seated himself between me and a professor of anatomy at Cambridge. By dessert time, conversation lagged. I heard
While I choked on a piece of cake, Levy, cool as a walrus, responded: “I see that both of us have chosen a subject everyone cares about. We’ve just gone further into it.”
It is my guess that this pudic cleansing of fico had the secondary effect of making the liver difficult to mention in polite society. Ficatum no longer meant just figged liver (really the liver itself by this point in time); it now contained within it the new word fica. And since ficatum would still have been felt to be a participle, ficatum acquired an obscene sense rather like our “fucked.” No pun or etymology intended. “Fuck” is an Anglo-Saxon word with the same ancestry as German ficken.
Once again, Italians solved the problem they had created for themselves. By distorting the spelling and the pronunciation of ficatum, they purified the liver of its aural taint. The i became e, and the accent got moved back a syllable, eliminating the possibility of a double entendre. (The c had already changed to g in popular speech.) Figa is still the earthier colloquial form of fica. And so Fégato was born, making it possible for Milanese women of fashion to complain daintily about their liver trouble, male di fegato.
© 2007 Raymond Sokolov. All rights reserved.