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Ladyfingers and Nun's Tummies
A Lighthearted Look at How Foods Got Their Names
By Martha Barnette ASJA Press
Copyright © 2005 Martha Barnette
All right reserved.
Mangled translations, misunderstandings, geographical mix-ups, and other happy
accidents have provided the English language with some of its most common and
colorful terms for food and drink. Foods such as peas, lemon sole, oranges,
German chocolate cake, turkey, cherries, Jordan almonds, and refried beans all
owe their names to linguistic goofs of one sort or another. A close look at these
felicitous foul-ups can help illuminate the way language sometimes works. In this
chapter, we'll explore how such names come about, often as the result of that
typically human impulse to take something seemingly foreign and turn it into
something more familiar.
In addition, linguistic mishaps occasionally produce English terms that seem to
have something to do with food but in fact do not. Apple-pie order, to egg on,
chowderhead, big cheese, and pea jacket are just a few examples. We'll meet these
and many more at the end of this chapter.
Words Misheard or Mistranslated
Consider the cherry. The Normans who conquered England called this fruit a
cherise, a forerunner of the modern French cerise. The natives of the British
Isles, however, mistakenly assumed that cherise was a plural andbegan referring
to a single one of these fruits as a cheri. Several English words, in fact, were
formed by a process known to linguists as back-formation, one type of which
occurs when a singular word is mistakenly assumed to be a plural. (Another
example is kudos. Many people assume that this word meaning "praise" or "acclaim"
is a plural noun and speak of giving someone a kudo. Actually, there's no such
thing as a single kudo, for the word kudos, an ancient Greek term for "glory,"
was borrowed whole into English.)
Another food word formed this way is pea, a descendant of the Middle English name
of this legume, pease, as in the singsong nursery rhyme that begins "Pease
porridge hot." By the early seventeenth century, the English began referring to a
single one of these as a pea, although as late as 1614 Sir Walter Raleigh
described something as being "of the bigness of a great Peaze." Both pea and
pease, at any rate, are linguistic descendants of the ancient Greeks' word for
The same thing happened with capers. Among the ancient Greeks, the word kapparis
denoted a shrub with flower buds that could be pickled and added to salads and
fish dishes. The Romans adapted this name into capparis, which eventually found
its way into Middle English as caperis or capres. Once again, speakers of modern
English lopped off that final s, so that now one of these piquant buds is
referred to as a caper.
The opposite may have happened with the gherkin. This small pickling cucumber's
name apparently stems from a Middle Persian word for "watermelon," angarah, a
term the Greeks later changed to agouros and applied to watermelons as well as
cucumbers. In Dutch, agouros became gurk, the plural of which is gurken.
Similarly, many etymologists suspect that the word muffin arose, as it were, from
the Low German Muffen, the plural form of Muffe, or "small cake." (True to its
Germanic roots, by the way, the English language once formed plurals the same way
as Dutch and German, by adding an -en to a singular noun. Vestiges of this
practice are still visible in our words oxen and children.)
Several other foods got their names when strange-sounding parts of foreign words
were changed to something that sounded more familiar. The crayfish or crawfish,
for example, isn't a fish at all. Actually, this staple of Cajun cuisine has a
name adapted from the Old French crevice, or "edible crustacean." Crayfish and
crevice are linguistic cousins of the English crawl and crab and are unrelated to
the English crevice, or "deep cleft," which comes from an entirely different
root. At any rate, the Old French crevice skittered into Middle English as
crevise, the tail end of which eventually evolved into the more recognizable
Another southern favorite, hoppin' john, apparently has nothing to do with either
hopping or anyone named John. Some lexicographers believe this traditional New
Year's Day stew of black-eyed peas, rice, and bacon or salt pork may take its
name from a Caribbean dish called pois à pigeon, or "pigeon peas," an expression
variously adapted into hoppin' john or happy john.
A similar mangling of a French name occurred with the shortbread known as
petticoat tails. This term dates from sixteenth-century Scotland, where the
Francophilic courtiers of Mary Stuart called them petits gâtels, which later
became petits gâteaux, or "little cakes." Somewhere along the way the Scots
apparently decided that petits gâteaux sounded a lot like petticoat tails and
started calling them that. They even began baking them in a ring pan with
scalloped edges, so that now the cookies also bear a resemblance to their frilly
Jordan almonds, those large nuts covered with a smooth, hard candy coating in
various pastel colors, come not from Jordan but from Spain. Their name actually
derives from the Old French jardin, meaning "garden." This descriptive was
adopted into Middle English, in which a fine variety of almond was called a
jardin almaund--but English speakers soon anglicized it, despite the risk of
Another food-related adaptation of a French word is the term kickshaw, which now
means "a fancy food or delicacy." Kickshaw comes from the French quelque chose,
meaning "something." In the past, the British used both quelque chose and
kickshaw interchangeably and, somewhat contemptuously, to denote "a 'something'
French"--that is, food prepared in an overly fancified, Frenchified way as opposed
to more substantial English fare. Thus in 1655, a persnickety English writer
dismissed what he called "over curious cookery, making . . . quelque-choses of
unsavoury . . . Meat."
Another French word misheard resulted in the name of the fish we call lemon sole.
Actually, this fish is a type of flounder, not sole, and has nothing at all to do
with the tart yellow fruit, even though it may be served with a thin slice of it.
The name lemon sole derives instead from a French term for "flatfish," limande.
It's thought that limande, in turn, may derive from the French word lime, meaning
"file" or "rasp," because of this creature's rough outer layer. Another theory
holds that the name limande (and, ultimately, lemon sole) comes from the Latin
word for "mud," límus, a reference to the bottom-dwelling habits of flatfish.
(If the latter is true, then the enticing lemon sole is a close linguistic
relative of the less-than-enticing words slime and limaceous, or "sluglike.")
The word cutlet is another French derivative that isn't what it seems: it's not,
as one might reasonably suppose, a "little cut" of meat. Instead, cutlet comes
from the French côtelette, a descendant of the Latin costa, or "rib." This makes
cutlet an etymological relative of several other words involving "ribs," "flank,"
or "sides," including the large, "ribbed" English cooking apple known as a
costard, as well as the tender entrecôte steak that's cut from "between the
ribs." All of these words are also kin to accost--literally "to approach the side"
of something or someone, not to mention the word designating the "rib" or "side"
of a landmass, coast.
Similarly, spareribs aren't "extra" ribs. Rather, this is an English alteration
of the Low German ribbesper, or "pork ribs roasted on a spit [or spear]," from
Old German words for "rib" and "spear." (The same idea is still reflected in the
modern German word for "spareribs," Rippespeer--literally, "spear ribs.") The
English adopted the Old German word and altered it to ribspare, a term for
"sparerib" that persists in England even today. More of them, however, switched
the elements of this compound in a way that not only seemed to make more sense
but was also reinforced by the fact that ribs tend to be closely trimmed of meat
or, in other words, rather "spare."
The name of the savory spice rosemary is also misleading. Because this minty herb
grew wild on the sea cliffs of southern Europe, the Romans called it ros
marínus, literally "sea dew." Thus the ros- in rosemary means "dew" and is
related to the obsolete English words for "dewy," roscid and rorid. The -mary in
rosemary, meanwhile, comes from a large pool of marine words, including mermaid,
maritime, and marinara. (The last of these, referring to "sailor-style" sauce,
apparently refers to the fact that the ingredients in marinara sauce were less
likely to spoil at sea and could easily be prepared with a minimal use of
fire--always a concern aboard wooden vessels). English speakers who inherited the
herb's name as ros marínus twisted it into the more familiar rosemary, a
combination no doubt influenced by the traditional association between the Virgin
Mary and her floral symbol, the rose.
For that matter, even refried beans aren't what they seem. Although their name
seems like a reasonable translation of Spanish frijoles refritos, the fact is
that these beans aren't really fried twice. In Spanish, refritos literally means
"well-fried," not "re-fried."
Excerpted from Ladyfingers and Nun's Tummies by Martha Barnette Copyright © 2005 by Martha Barnette. Excerpted by permission.
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