Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Christmas meal

The Christmas meal

Just what you were hoping for — etymologies for a few items on the traditional Christmas dinner table.

The word turkey showed up in English in the 1540s & originally applied to the guinea fowl of Madagascar (which the English 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. 

Apparently, the ancestors of the word ham had their sights on moving up in the world. The original source of the word ham is a Proto-Germanic word for shinbonethis word became an Old English word meaning the hollow or bend of the knee, and from there we have the modern English word ham, meaning the thigh of a hog (usually salted or cured). This upward-moving definition is a good things, as a hog’s shinbone wouldn’t be much of a holiday feast.

And of course, there’s the Christmas goose. Its source is the Proto-Indo-European word *ghans-, meaning goose. This word’s progeny form a multi-cultural (or multi-lingual, I suppose) cornucopia of words meaning goose, in all these languages: Sanskrit, Lithuanian. German, Old Frisian, Old Norse, Latin, Polish, Greek, & Old Irish.

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

And to close all this off, the word cranberry came to English in the 1640s — an American English adaptation of the German word kraanbere, a similar berry found in Europe, most likely named kraanbere because the stamen of the flower of this bere, (berry), resembles a kraan (crane).

May your holiday (Christmas or otherwise) be filled with tasty food, stellar people, & general wonderfulness.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, Etymonline, Merriam Webster, & Collins Dictionary.


  1. I have often wondered why those birds have the same name as that country on the Mediterranean. Now I know. And I thought I was very weird planning to serve lamb shanks for Christmas--but they really are shin bones. :-) "Ham" in the original sense.

  2. Anne - thanks once more for visiting. I know your Christmas dinner will be quiet & calm -- may it also be fabulous.

  3. I never thought of the cranberry as having a flower. Now I will have to goggle it. Have a wonderful Christmas!

    1. Hey Christine - thanks for coming by. Google well!