The Weight of Words
Chapter Two: Word Invaders
First a little background:
Anglo-Saxon is the emotional heart of English; it is the basis of everyday communication. Even though 51 percent of Chaucer’s 8,000-word vocabulary committed to print is Romance in origin, less than 20 percent of that total vocabulary is not basic English. It's difficult to say what the percentage of Anglo-Saxon is in Modern English, as there are many words that have there counterpart in other languages, e.g. beef is French, and oxen is German. Anglo Saxons were a tribe living on the boarder between, what we today call Denmark and Germany. A broad breakdown of derivation from other languages into Modern English today would be 60% French or Latin via French, 15-20% from Greek. Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse comprise most of the remainder, the small percentage left, about 1-2%, being loan words from Spanish, Gaelic, Russian, Arabic, etc. Of course 1-2% of a vocabulary of over 1 million words is quite a mouthful.
Had it not been for the French language influence, due to the Norman invasion in 1066 C.E., English today would be very much like Danish, and in fact there are many Norse words to be found e.g. manger = many, flu = fly, end = end, hang = hang, tid = time, olde = old. And this is only naming a few.
The genius of English in its use of other languages runs deeper than a simple borrowing of words. Scandinavian, for example, helped bring order out the chaos in the English pronoun system with the gifts of they, their, and them. It also supplied are as the present plural verb form of to be.
What I’d like to concentrate on in this chapter is the gastronomical contributions of words from some surprising sources. Let’s begin with a discovery I made back in the mid-1990s when I was out with some friends in San Francisco’s Chinatown. We chose a restaurant by virtue of the long waiting line; always a surefire sign of very good and reasonably priced Chinese food. Standing there I could see into the kitchen where the cooks were busily tossing chow mein, rice, and various kinds vegetables, sea foods and meats in their woks, when I noticed a bottle of ketchup lined up next to the soy sauce, oyster sauce, hot sauce, etc. After we were seated I mentioned this to our waiter, with some surprise in my voice, because ketchup is so American, and is generally disdained in many cuisines. I was informed with a certain irony in his voice, that ketchup is Chinese, that that word comes from koechiap; originally a brine of various fish parts often mixed with tomato puree, along with other spices. Of course when I got home I looked this up in my encyclopedia, this is in the days before I had a computer, and found not only that this is the case, but that catsup, which I always thought was just a regional difference in the spelling for ketchup, was actually an attempt at Englishing this word as far back as the 1680s. This in turn led me to look up the origins of the other ingredients listed on the ketchup bottle. Starting at the top of the list:
Tomato: Originally tomato came from Nahuatl (Aztecan) tomatl, cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas as early as 700 C.E., then in turn came to Portuguese, then to Spanish as tomate in the 16th century. The tomato was thought to be poisonous by Europeans, and actually the leaves are deadly and some people have the same reaction to the fruit.
Sugar: Now this is sweet! The etymology of this word surprised me. Sugar started it’s journey to Modern English from Sanskrit sharkara “ground or candied sugar,” to Persian shakar, to Medieval Latin succarum, to Old French sucre in the 13th century, then finally to Middle English shortly thereafter.
Vinegar: Okay, no surprised here, vinegar is from Latin vinum ‘wine’ + acer ‘sour,’ to Old French vyn egre, to Middle English.
Salt: The most popular seasoning in the world, salt came to us from an Indo-European root shared by Latin sal and Greek hals ‘salt.’ A little side trip, the word salary is derived from the word salt, because Roman soldiers were paid in salt, a commodity that was in great demand and easily bartered back in the days of the first republic.
Now what would a hamburger be like without ketchup? Of course hamburger came to the American shores in 1912 and is derived from the German city of Hamburg. Which brings us to another import, Frankfurter, from German Frankfurter Wurst “Frankfurt sausage,” nowadays in America more commonly called the “Hot Dog.” Finally an American / English word introduced into British / English. The term dog has been used as a synonym for sausage since 1884 and accusations that sausage makers used dog meat, date to at least 1845. In the early 20th century, consumption of dog meat in Germany was common. The suspicion that sausages contained dog meat in America was occasionally justified. The earliest known usage of hot dog in clear reference to sausage, found by Fred R. Shapiro, appeared in the December 31, 1892 issue of the Paterson (New Jersey) Daily Press. The story concerned a local traveling vendor, Thomas Francis Xavier Morris. According to Shapiro, a small boy said to the frankfurter vendor, "Hey, Mister, give me a hot dog quick," as the startled Press reporter stood close by. In the next day’s newspaper readers were treated to this scrumptious morsel: “The ‘hot dog’ was quickly inserted in a gash in a roll, a dash of mustard also splashed on to the ‘dog’ with a piece of flat whittled stick, and the order was fulfilled.” According to another story, the use of the complete phrase hot dog in reference to sausage was coined by the newspaper cartoonist Thomas Aloysius "TAD" Dorgan around 1900 in a cartoon recording the sale of hot dogs during a New York Giants’ baseball game at the Polo Grounds. However, TAD's earliest usage of hot dog was not in reference to a baseball game at the Polo Grounds, but to a bicycle race at Madison Square Garden, in The New York Evening Journal December 12, 1906, by which time the term hot dog in reference to sausage was already in use. In addition, no copy of the apocryphal cartoon has ever been found.
Another popular American condiment is “mustard,” the perfect marriage to the hot dog. This word derives from the Anglo-Norman mustarde and Old French mostarde. The first element is ultimately from Latin mustum, ("must,” that is “young wine”) – the condiment was originally prepared by making the ground seeds into a paste with must. The second element comes also from Latin ardens, (hot, flaming). It first appeared in English in the late 13th century.
And we have the French to thank for mayonnaise, a sauce made from egg yolks, oil, and vinegar, 1815, from sauce mayonnaise (1806), said by French sources to be corrupted from mahonnaise and to have been named in recognition of Mahon, seaport capital island of Minorca, captured by France in 1756 after the defeat of the British defending fleet in the Seven Years' War; the sauce having been introduced either in commemoration of the victory, which was led by Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, duc de Richelieu (1696–1788), or because it was brought to France from there by him. Whew! that’s a mouth full. Mayonnaise is used in the US on hamburgers, sometimes on French fries, and who knows, perhaps someday on hotdogs. Egad! Another side trip: a mixture of ketchup and mayonnaise are the main ingredients in Thousand Island dressing used on salads, and salad comes from the word salt.
And lastly the derivation of the word barbecue. Most etymologists believe that barbecue derives from the word barabicu found in the language of the Taíno people of the Caribbean and the Timucua of Florida, and entered European languages in the form barbacoa. The word translates as "sacred fire pit." The word describes a grill for cooking meat, consisting of a wooden platform resting on sticks.
There are literally thousands of words from various etymologies for the foods we English speakers owe to the invaders. Perhaps someday, someone will write a tome on just this subject.
So as yellow jackets buzz your burger and bun, and Fido eyes your hot dog rather warily, you’ll have lots to talk about at your next cookout besides current events.
By the by, has anyone tried ketchup on scrambled eggs? Delish.
Copyright ©2015 Joseph Zaccardi