Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Food = Mess



Food = Mess

When it comes to etymologies, food is messier than one might think.

Though some have assumed the military term mess comes from the Latin word for table (mensa), it actually comes from another Latin word, mittere, to send away or put, & simply suggests that someone has put the food on the table. It appeared in our language in the late 1300s. Interestingly, mass in the religious sense comes from the same source. So, the word mess isn’t really a mess at all, but these food words are:

Hash comes from the French word hacher, to hack or chop into small pieces. It entered English in the 1660s.The French word came from the Old French word for ax, hache. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that hash & hatchet are related. Here’s hoping nobody’s hash was hacked or chopped into small pieces with a hatchet (a messy process at best). By 1735, hash acquired the secondary meaning, a mix or mess.

Shambles showed up in English in the late 1400s, meaning meat or fish market, and came from the Old English word scomul (or scaemul), meaning stool or table for vending. By the 1540s, shambles meant slaughterhouse. This meaning became generalized by 1590 to mean place of butchery, & it wasn’t until 1901 that the meaning of shambles became generalized enough to mean confusion or mess.

Hodgepodge entered English in the late 1300s as hotchpotch, a kind of stew. It appears that the word is a hodgepodge itself, the first bit coming from Old French, meaning to shake, and the second part coming from German, probably derived from Late Latin, meaning cooking vessel (related to our modern day cooking vessel, the pot). Though multiple sources list possible ingredients for this kind of stew, each source seems to provide a different list. My read on this is that nearly anything one shook into the pot for a few centuries on the British Isles could’ve been referred to as hodgepodge.

In 1894 a variant of bologna was born – baloney! The term referred to a sausage made of odds & ends. By 1922, possibly through association with the term blarney, baloney came to mean nonsense, which isn’t quite a synonym with mess, though one could argue that the odds & ends that went into bologna/baloney might qualify as such.

Anyone who has ever bussed a table or eaten in the vicinity of a two-year old is familiar with the equation food = mess. Might these etymologies simply reflect that reality?


My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Hugh Rawson’s Devious Derivations (Castle Books, 2002), Wordnik & Etymonline.

4 comments:

  1. Restaurant workers unite! Yes, I'm sure they'd all agree on the food=mess.

    I think the original bologna was the sausage made in northern Italy near Bologna, which Italians call mortadella. It's one of the reasons Bologna was known as "la grassa"--the fat city. It looks like US bologna only has big blobs of fat in it--and a lot more spices. (Sorry, that probably sounds REALLY gross to a vegetarian.)

    I had no idea that a hodgepodge was a stew. Probably something they threw anything in they could kill or catch. Maybe even a hedgehog hodgepodge?

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    1. If I were a wacky 1970s artist, your comment would inspire me to fashion a hedgehog hodgepodge lodge of Mod Podge!

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  2. I will never, never call my living room a shambles again! Yuck. I have a two year old grandson and yes, food and mess are synonymous with him and mess is one of his most used words. I love the hedgehog hodgepodge lodge of Mod Podge...too funny! Thanks for another entertaining morning read!

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    1. Hi Christine,
      I'm with you on the word shambles -- an image that will decidedly stick with me, & who knew? Thanks for visiting & having something to say.

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