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, February 6, 2014

Faux Etymologies about Food


Faux Etymologies about Food

People can be as creative with their stories about the origins of words that describe food as they can with various ways to prepare food. Here are just a few examples.

Because asparagus has also been called sparrow-grass, the false notion has arisen that sparrows used to loiter in the asparagus bed, thus the name. Actually, the word came to English in the 1500s from Greek (asparagos), & within the next two centuries it was eclipsed in popular usage by two colloquialisms sparrow-grass & sparagrass. During this whole time, botanists held onto the original word. Darned if those botanists didn’t win out in the end, when Victorian England’s fascination for properness found sparrow-grass to be unpleasantly common-sounding, & so asparagus was reborn. Interestingly, some die-hard British cookbook authors continue to refer to asparagus as grass.

Marmalade’s true ancestry starts in Greece, where a melimelon was the fruit that occurred when an apple was grafted onto a quince tree. The term translates to honey apple. Melimelon made its way through Portuguese and French to become marmalade in English, referring to preserves made from boiling fruit(s). Even though the term entered English in 1524, nearly 20 years before Mary Queen of Scots’ birth, some insist that the word marmalade was born as servants scuttled about trying to answer the ill Queen Mary’s demands for fruit preserves, whispering to one another, Marie malade (Mary sick).

Word had it back in the 1970s that gorp (a mixture of peanuts, raisins, dried fruits and such) stood for Good Old Raisins & Peanuts. I remember hearing this explanation myself while schlepping along some trail dwarfed by my CampTrails backpack. Etymologists refer to this sort of invention as a backronym. In fact, gorp probably comes from some collection of gulp, gorge, gobble &/or gorge. There’s also the possibility that it came about as a back-formation of gorper, which was an American term used in the 1950s meaning glutton or gulper.

The name artichoke has inspired many a tale of choking caused by undercooked artichokes. These stories make some sense; after all, who came up with the idea that we could boil a thistle for 40 minutes & then eat it? In fact, the word artichoke entered English in the 1500s from the Italian term articiocco. The Italians got the word from Arabic, & simply couldn’t pronounce al-harshuf well enough for it to look or sound much like its former self.

Which of these faux etymologies had you previously heard? Please leave a comment.


My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Hugh Rawson’s Devious Derivations, OED, Etymonline, & Wordnik

6 comments:

  1. All of these were new to me, and very entertaining! Marmalade indeed.

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  2. These are so fun! I had not heard the story of "Marie malade". Now of course I will always have to call it that.

    In present day Italian, the word for artichoke is "carciofo," so it sounds as if they gave up trying to pronounce that Arabic word altogether.

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  3. Hi Rachel6 & Anne,
    May none of your Maries experience malade! Thanks so much for coming by so regularly.

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  4. All new to me. I've never even heard of gorp. talking about artichokes brings up one the things that most intrigues me about food. Someone, at some time, had to look at an artichoke and say, "That looks like it could be tasty." Really?

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  5. Hi Christine - I'm with you on artichokes (which I happen to love). On top of all that, the artichokes we eat today have been hybridized for centuries, making them more & more edible (& edible looking). The thing someone decided to try eating hundreds of years ago probably looked more like your garden-variety thistle. I'm guessing s/he was very very hungry.

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  6. I will never eat asparagus again without thinking of sparrow-grass. Thanks.

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