Why can’t you just say dish towel?

That was a non-Italian-American roommate’s response after I asked her to hand me a mappina (dish towel).  To be fair, her first response was to ask me what a mappina was.  It was after I gave her the English definition that she asked me, “Why can’t you just say dish towel?” Her facial expression, however, said, “What the hell is the matter with you?”  I don’t know, maybe my Italian heritage provides me with a genetic jerked upedness that makes me say funny words like mappina. The more likely answer is, it’s the word I learned to describe the object. Growing up, the word was so commonly used that one could argue that it’s a part of our English language. No one used the word dish towel, not even my non-Italian-American father.  Dish towel sounds foreign to my ears.

How to fashionably wear a mappina, as modeled here by my mother

Mappina holds a special place in my childhood memories.  As a child, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house. Both my parents worked, so after school my brother and I would go to my grandparents’ until one of them came to pick us up.  During that time the most vivid memory I have is baking cookies with my nonna, or Mom as she preferred to be called.  The cookies were always made on her white kitchen table.  Flour, eggs and sugar all poured on top of the table to be mixed by hand.  My grandmother would then wipe down the table with a mappina that she had instructed my brother or me to get for her.  When the dough was ready to be rolled into cookies, she threw down a bit of flour so it would not stick to the table.  When she was finished rolling her cookies, a mappina was used to wipe down the table once again.

Mappina in a convenient place ready for my grandmother to throw at my grandfather

A mappina is not just synonymous in my mind with cleaning dirty tables.  Dirty faces are cleaned with a mappina.  Wet pots are dried with a mappina during the cleanup of a family meal. So why can’t I say dish towel?  Because saying mappina for me is as natural as breathing.  I don’t think about it or put any effort into it– it just happens.  And because the mappina, though small and unimportant, was somehow always present in my most cherished childhood memories of the time I was blessed to have with my grandmother.

Written by OSIA National Office Administrative Assistant, Elisa Wilkinson.

7 thoughts on “Why can’t you just say dish towel?

  1. I grew up in a special area of Pennsylvania… Where Pop was soda, a zapper is the remote control and the sweeper and the vacuum. And to my friends, “Yin’s gonna always poke fun at my language?”

    Great article Elisa! Miss you!

  2. You brought back good memories Elisa! Misty I think you grew up in or arouind Pittsburgh as I did….the “yin’s gave you away! I didn’t know a mappina was a dish towel until I got married and moved away from PA. When I moved to NC there were very few Italians and the fanciest pasta I could buy at the grocery store was rigatoni…..but I raised two sons and a non-Italian Okie husband to know what a mappina was and that is what they always called a dish towel in our home….to this day! Now Rachel Ray has made the world know what a mappina is….only she pronounces it “moppine”…..I always pronounced as you….mappina. Could that be the Southen Italian way?! I say that because in my travels I met a woman from Rome (born and raised) and she said she never heard the word mappina in Rome.
    It may be regional.

    Thanks for the memories ladies!

  3. I can’t believe I came across this site….My family has been asking what the actual meaning of mappina is. I just know it is a dish towel. Always on the table, always at hand for each and every task….wiping down the table, wiping hands and faces at meals, and yes, even drying the pots and pans. I eat my meals with the mappina at the edge of the table (sometimes my free hand is holding it while I eat.) That’s all thanks to my dad’s side of the family. My mom’s family is from Western Pennsylvania…south of Pittsburgh where “Y’ins know what pop is and grandma always asked me to run the sweeper for her.”
    Glad to have revisited my childhood. Thanks, Elsa!

    Laura S.

  4. Has the word mappina become part of the English language? Here in Providence, Rhode Island, I never heard the words dish towel. I grew up with mappina, and I continue to use it today, as do many non-Italian speakers. Thanks. Paul.

  5. Fabulous article!!I feel the same way. My mother and her family always referred to it as a moppine. Calling it something else is like naming a person a different name. That’s just what it is and what you call it/say. I remember as a child going over to a friend’s house and asking for a moppine. She looked at me like I was crazy. I had to describe how it was used because I had no English word to give her. It was simply a moppine. Didn’t everybody call it that?

  6. Your roommate sounds like a jerk, just saying. My roommates figured it out real quick and even started saying it themselves ! Same way I picked up some of their speech patterns.

  7. great article! i stumbled across this article looking for a tappina. For mappina and a bunch of other words, i have to really think hard about the english translation.

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