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Food’s greedy appetite for foreign words - Johnny Grimond

Blog | By Johnny Grimond | Aug 09, 2022


The melting pot of English has a long history of linguistic larceny, and none more so than in the culinary world. By Johnny Grimond

In the aviary of languages, English is a jackdaw or a magpie, a bird that steals widely and insouciantly. Grammarians call this readiness to pinch foreign words ‘borrowing’, but it’s not the kind encouraged by your bank. True, the purloining of words deprives no other language of its inventions but, even so, no interest is paid and no capital returned.

Little exemplifies the klepto-characteristics of English so well as the vocabulary of eating. When it comes to the matter of the menu, English seems to turn to Johnny Foreigner at almost every turn.

Consider ‘breakfast’. The word itself, with a pedigree going back to 1463, has fairly typical origins. ‘Break’ and ‘fast’ both appear in Old English, the language spoken by Anglo-Saxons from the fifth century to the 12th. They probably got it from Germanic, which seems to have formed brekan from frangere in Latin. But similar words were knocking around Europe in Dutch and Old Frisian.

This is a common pattern. As Professor David Crystal has pointed out, no language is ever pure. Each is a mixture, formed by the contacts between its speakers and outsiders. Thus the English spoken in the middle of the first millennium AD took from Latin such modern breakfast words as ‘butter’ (butyrum in Latin, butere in Old English) and ‘pear’ (pirum in Latin, pere in OE).

Latin also gave us ‘toast’ from tostus and ‘cereal’ from Ceres, the Roman goddess of farming. Greek was the source of ‘marmalade’, which had hit English by 1480, via Latin, French and Portuguese.

‘Orange’ had also been adopted by then, sweeping like a virus through French, Arabic, Persian and Spanish. ‘Muesli’ appeared in English dictionaries about five centuries later, after Dr Max Bircher-Benner had launched his morning mixture as Müesli, a Swiss-German diminutive of Mus (‘mush’). And croissants had long since crossed the Channel.

Skipping elevenses (provenance: ‘eleven’ from Old English and many of the usual sources, including Old Norse and Gothic), we get to ‘lunch’ (originally a ‘thick piece or hunch’, as in ‘hunchback’).

Here, with the advent of the Normans, the extent of word theft broadens. The conquerors brought French to Britain to describe the food eaten by their class – hence ‘beef’ (boeuf), ‘mutton’ (mouton) and ‘pork’ (porc) – while those who reared the animals retained the English names, ‘cow’, ‘sheep’ and ‘pig’.

Recent research suggests that the French had already introduced early Celtic languages to Britain in the Bronze Age. More striking, though, are the later imports, and not just from France, though béarnaise, coq au vin, soufflé, quiche, tarte tatin and many others have now entered the language.

So, skipping quickly over tea (from Chinese) with its strudel (German) and marzipan (Italian), we can welcome dishes from all over the world that are suitable for lunch or dinner. The list is long, from caviar (Italian), chop suey (Chinese) and coleslaw (US) to fettucine, frankfurter and frittata; from polenta, popadum (Tamil) and pizza to satay (Javanese), schnitzel and smörgåsbord. English even invents foreign names for such British delights as Bolognese sauce.

Foreign languages are not, however, the only source of English food names. Some home-made terms, such as angels on horseback and pigs in blankets, show inventiveness. But look across the Atlantic, too, for nifty neologisms.

Several have been brought together by Alexandra Day in Frank and Ernest, an American children’s book about a bear and an elephant who take on the running of a diner. They find they have to expand their vocabularies to make a success of their task. ‘Cow paste’, they learn, is butter; so ‘dough well done with cow to cover’ is buttered toast. ‘Fry two, let the sun shine’ is ‘Fry two eggs with yolks unbroken.’ ‘Mama on a raft’ is marmalade on toast. ‘Put out the lights and cry’ is the order for liver and onions. ‘Paint a bow-wow red, and I need a nervous pudding’ will bring a hot-dog with ketchup and a serving of jelly.

Some may say that the relative paucity of indigenous food terms has something to do with the nature of British cuisine. Perhaps the British could be as original as the Americans if they ate more nervous pudding.