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.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What came first, the turkey or the yam?


What came first, the turkey or the yam?

Most Americans will join family members this week to express their gratitude for one another & for something near & dear to my heart – food. In celebration of Thanksgiving, Wordmonger takes a look at the origins of some of the words that might fit in the sentence, “Uncle Ambrose, would you please pass the ______?”

The word turkey showed up in English in the 1540s & originally applied to the guinea fowl of Madagascar (which Brits mistakenly believed came from Turkey). The turkeys on many Americans’ tables today are another bird altogether, a species first domesticated by the Aztecs. Spanish conquistadors met their first new world turkeys in 1523, and brought them back to Europe & northern Africa. Within fifty years, those new world turkeys had become the main course of choice for most British Christmas dinners.

Potato entered English in the 1560s form the Spanish patata. The Spanish had borrowed the word from the people of Haiti, who called their native sweet potato batata. By 1565 voyagers returned from Peru with a similar, yet much paler tuber and it became established in Ireland as a food source. By 1590, the name potato was applied to it as well. Oddly, this interloper was referred to both as the Virginia potato (another example of geographic confusion), or the bastard potato (because it wasn’t nearly as important at the time as the sweet potato). Though the sweet potato still reigns today in many third world countries, that white-fleshed tuber first found in Peru reigns supreme in the first world.

In the 1580s, yam made its way into English through Spanish (igname) or Portuguese (inhame) from a West African language, where nyami simply meant to eat.

In the 1530s, the term stuffing was born, meaning a seasoned mixture used to stuff fowls before cooking. Its synonym, dressing was used as a verb as early as the 1300s to mean to prepare for cooking. It came from the OId French word drecier, to raise, hoist, arrange or set a table. By the 1500s, dressing joined stuffing to mean a seasoned mixture used to stuff fowls before cooking.

And what would all this food be without family to appreciate it? The word family entered English in the early 1400s, meaning servants of a household. The English borrowed it from the Latin term familia, which meant family servants or the servants of a household. In the 1500s family began to mean those who lived under one roof, including parents, children, servants, lodgers & boarders. By the 1580s, family came to mean those claiming descent from a common ancestor. It wasn’t until the 1660s that the word family began to mean persons closely related by blood.

Dear readers, I challenge you to publically declare your word-nerdliness by offering an etymological comment at your family celebration. You might discover that your dear Great Aunt Boadicea shares your fascination for word history (or if not yours, at least mine).


My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Etymonline. SweetPotatoes.com & Wordnik

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