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, January 9, 2014

Things We Eat

Things We Eat

The stories behind the names of the things we eat can often be as delicious as the items themselves. Here’s a random sampling from words that made their way into English during the 1700s:

Pumpernickel – this dense, tasty bread is of German origin, as is its name. Oddly, the name pumpernickel referred originally to a coarse, dark, brutish fellow. Etymologists argue over whether the first part is pumper, meaning the noise of a heavy fall, or pumpern, meaning to break wind. The second part is a nickname for the name Nicholas, which interestingly is also equated with goblins, louts & rascals. Etymologists can’t piece together exactly how pumpernickel moved from labeling the louts or farts to labeling the bread, but given the fact that the paler flours tended to be reserved for the wealthy, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine how any generally negative term got applied to a distinctively dark bread.

The sandwich, as many have heard, was named for John Montague, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. Some claim the Earl was very fond of gambling – so fond, he often wasn’t willing to put down his cards for events as mundane as meals, so he simply wrapped a hunk of meat in a slice of bread and ate without slowing the game(s). Other historians claim that the inaugural sandwich was most likely eaten at the Earl’s desk as he addressed his many responsibilities in business and politics.

Welsh rabbit is actually a snub directed at the good people of Wales. Typically, Welsh rabbit is melted cheese or cream over toast or crackers. It seems the Welsh were perceived as living on the wrong side of the tracks. The snub suggests that melted cheese over toast was the nearest thing to rabbit the Welsh could afford.

The word chowder has etymologists duking it out. Some claim it heralds from Brittany, where a form of the French word chaud, meaning hot, gave birth to the name for the pot one puts over the fire, the chaudiere, or cauldron. These etymologists claim the “housewives of Brittany” used the term chowder for both the pot & for what they cooked in the pot. Other etymologists stick with the same French roots for the word, but place the word’s birth in Newfoundland in the early Americas.

When we toast someone, we typically don’t raise a piece of heated bread to do so, but to some degree, our ancestors did. In a classy establishment of the 1700s, a tiny piece of spiced toast was placed in the bottom of a glass filled with ale or another beverage. When the glass was raised in honor of someone, the drinker did, indeed, raise the toast.

What food names do you wonder about? Or what might you have to say about the origins noted above? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Etymonline, Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins & Wordnik


  1. Oh my goodness, so a pumpernickel is a chowderhead? :-) I certainly believe the pot/contents etymology, since the French did the same with cassoulet: it means both the pot and the bean-duck-pork stew. But toast was a complete surprise to me: Beer on toast--kind of the English version of Welsh Rabbit?

  2. Ha! I suppose a toast may indeed be somewhat Welsh rabbitesque. Thanks for coming by, Anne, & may your future involve no pumpernickels of the human variety.

  3. Perhaps pumpernickel came about as a bastardization of "pump yer nickel" to pay for the bread... at least that's what my insanity has figured out over the years...

    And I always thought Welsh rabbit was again a mispronunciation of Welsh rarebit... or is rarebit simply a more highfalutin term for the commonplace insult of rabbit??

    It seems food origins are as tasty as food itself!

  4. Interesting how the origin of food words is influenced by class distinctions. But then the subject of food is actually full of class distinctions. In fact food choices are almost always influenced by class. We can make a judgment about someones childhood status by asking them what they used to have for lunch. Interesting. Mine was a peanut-butter sandwich fruit and Fritos. Solidly middle class fare, I'm thinking. Thanks for this opportunity to ponder!

  5. Ahoy Susan & Christine,
    I'm guessing that for most of our history class has influenced everything. It feels to me as though the trend lately has had less to do with class & more to do with money. And Susan, "rarebit" seems to have come from "rabbit," though I'm not finding anyone who can explain why "rarebit" was born, aside from it being a "perversion of rabbit."

  6. This Welsh-blooded woman never associated Welsh rabbit with cheesy toast until you straightened me out, Charlie. I only knew the "rarebit" spelling so never made the association with bunny rabbits. Even if I had, I wouldn't have thought of it as a put-down to the poor Welsh who couldn't afford real rabbit. Perhaps I should have. Poverty is what motivated my Welsh miner ancestors to immigrate to the U.S. during the Civil War when jobs were aplenty because the Yankee miners were all off making war.

  7. Regarding Fritos and status, Christine: My mom grew up in San Antonio during the Depression. She says she and her sibs would have starved to death had it not been for Frito-Lay. They used to walk barefoot across town to the factory. There they would buy a big box of warm, rejected Fritos for a nickel. Nary a chip made it all the way home. As an adult, she could never eat Fritos. The smell brought back too many sad memories. She always said she was hungry every day of her childhood. At school, while others ate sack lunches from home, she and her lunchless sibs were not allowed to play until all the kids with food were done eating.