Historical Notes on Culinary Terms
|Although food historians can rely on written evidence to provide them with early recipes and references to dishes that might have been, the only other sources available to them are archaeology (which never preserves a trifle intact), art history (which doesn’t go back that far) or the history of language – for the names of things will often tell much about their origins. Food enthusiasts will, therefore, spend much time recounting how a dish got its name, but often they will be peddling nonsense or mythology and what we really need is a historian of language. William Sayers is just that and in this collection of essays and articles he explores the riches of medieval English (and sometimes other tongues) to tease out unfamiliar facts about our food heritage.He looks at a wide range of topics: the bun; fish names; bee keeping; bread making; the strawberry; the haggis; stock; kitchen staff; frumenty; the pig and pork products. His approach is rigorously linguistic, but the facts are always curious and amusing for the engaged reader.Food history is a tremendously rich area of enquiry and this book explores nooks and crannies that have not been properly mapped up to now.
Until recently William Sayer was Adjunct Professor at Cornell University but now retired, he writes, mainly on medieval western European languages and literatures, in particular on Old Norse, Old Irish, and Anglo-Norman French, and, more recently, on English etymology. He was the Cornell University Library’s selector for French, Italian, Netherlandic, and Scandinavian languages, literature, and history.
Reviewed in The Independent, London, April 12th 2015:
Eatymologies is the perfect finale to Jaine’s culinary omnium-gatherum. While impressively (sometimes impenetrably) scholarly, the American philologist William Sayers is also quirky (a chapter is devoted to Zola’s repulsion at “the pestilential stench” of certain cheeses) and irreverent. His pot-shots at the Oxford English Dictionary reach a climax in the demolition of its proposed etymology for “thivel” (a north British term for pot-stirrer). After accusing the OED of “smug editorialising”, he bluntly concludes: “Here the dictionary is in error.”
Eatymologies will provide an authoritative source for disputes among the gastronomically obsessed. As the book’s cover blurb (surely penned by Jaine) points out, “food enthusiasts … spend much time recounting how a dish got its name, but often they will be peddling nonsense”. Sayers puts us right on the origin of terms as varied as bun, mackerel (“In Latin, macula meant ‘spot’… maculatus ‘full of spots, spotted, speckled’ ”) and chitterlings (a “euphemism, apparently having originated as ‘kettle-boiled sausages’ ”). Review by Chris Hirst
Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement by Bee Wilson, London, July 22 2015:
Shortcake summers – Times Literary Supplement
There are several popular explanations for strawberries being called strawberries in English and, as the etymologist William Sayers explains in Eatymologies: Historical notes on culinary terms, they must, logically, all be wrong. Some have suggested that the strawberry’s name derives from the tiny seed-like achenes on the outside of the fruit, which are yellow, like straw. Another notion is that the name refers to the fact that strawberries mostly grow in grassy places or in hayfields. A third, related, theory is that the name comes from the straw mulch placed under the plants to improve the soil and drainage and stop the heavy fruits from drooping down into the earth. Certainly, this was what I’d always believed. When gathering berries at pick-your-own farms at the height of summer, you look at the strawberry plants on their scratchy golden carpet and leap to assumptions.
What none of these theories allows for is that the Garden Strawberry as we know it (Fragaria x ananassa) has only been cultivated since the eighteenth century. Yet as Sayers points out, the name itself, which is distinct from the Latin fragum, is far older, going all the way back to Old English. The word therefore probably does not relate directly to straw. The Old English name, writes Sayers, “would have referred to the Woodland Strawberry, Fragaria vesca (also known as the Wild, European, or Alpine Strawberry)”. Wild strawberries did not have yellow achenes, nor would they have been mulched with straw. Sayers’s own explanation for the name – a highly plausible one – is that the original Streawbergan of Old English was actually a “strewn berry”: when wild strawberries grow in woodlands, they are largely propagated by animals and birds, who spread the achenes “far from the original plant”. These were berries that seemed to be strewn in an irregular distribution across the ground. To Sayers, the strawberry is comparable to the Old Saxon word erthberi or “earth-berry”. This somehow makes it seem quite another fruit from the one we now eat: less Wimbledon and more Game of Thrones.
To read the various etymological essays in Sayers’s richly researched Eatymologies is to see how much of the story of food is missing when we neglect the history of language. For anyone seeking after the true origins of a particular food or dish, the history of “the names of things” may be one of the more fruitful research methods. It can tell us not just how a particular food was classified, but how it related to other foods and cooking techniques. For example, language tells us that the grill has been a constant in English-speaking life since Roman times – it comes from the Latin craticulum, meaning lattice-shaped utensil – whereas other, once-related, technologies have died out along with the words that described them. Do any cooks now speak of andirons, let alone cobbards (a kind of spit-holder)?
Another virtue of etymology as an approach is that it illuminates the complexity of how people responded to food in the past. Consider the chowder. Sayers carefully unpicks the way that this word functions as a “hybrid construct” that manages to combine three concepts in one. “Chow” alludes to mastication (to chaw and to chow were variants on chewing), yet the word as a whole also echoes the two French words chaudière, meaning kettle, and chaudumée or fish soup. This has a kind of crossword brilliance. A single word can stand for the vessel in which the dish is cooked, the dish itself, and how it is eaten. The only flaw is that, as Sayers notes, “chowder is not especially chewy”.
Sayers’s “eatymologies” are not always quite so illuminating, however. The trouble with etymology as a way of doing food history is that on many occasions it leads to a dead end, which partly explains why some of the chapters in this book are more satisfying than others. It’s fun to watch a safe being cracked, but frustrating to stand by as someone struggles in vain to open the door, trying endless failed combinations. This is the case with Sayers’s section on scones. We know that Scottish Gaelic has a word, sgonn, which could mean anything from “a large slice of bread or meat” to a “short block of wood; shapeless mass; dolt; blockhead; large mouthful; huge, unshapely person; talkative person”. It isn’t at all clear which of the various meanings “scone” alludes to: was it a “block” of baked dough, or was it something that reminded people of a doltish human head? Modern Irish has a word, srubhan, referring to some kind of cake-like bun, with suggestion of being snout-shaped (srub is snout): if this is the root, Sayers suggests, it might have referred to scones cut into wedge-shaped pieces. A triangular scone looks a little like a snout. But there’s another related Celtic word, sgath, meaning primarily to cut off. In which case, a scone would be something cut out “from a larger amount or unit”. But Sayers concludes that “on balance, the etymology of sgonn must still be judged moot”, so we are left none the wiser about what a scone actually is, or why cooks made them, or how they were eaten.