“Recipe”: it’s just what the doctor ordered

Worried about a culinary emergency this US Thanksgiving? Panicking about your menu? Sending out an SOS to Butterball’s Turkey Talk-line? Fear not: follow your recipes. It’s just what the doctor ordered, etymologically speaking.

Recipe.jpg
Take with food. “Recipe.” Doodle by me.

Recipe

English vocabulary owes a great deal to Latin, as we know, especially as filtered through French. But there are some Latin words – as Latin words – hiding right under our noses. Take recipe. It means “take.” It’s a Latin verb, pure and simple. Well, technically speaking, it’s the 2nd-person singular imperative of recipere. This word had various meanings, but, for our purposes here, will consider “take in” or “take back.”

In the Middle Ages, physicians headed their prescriptions with the Late Latin recipe, followed by a list of ingredients and instructions. So, recipe signified: “Take (the following substances as prescribed).” Over time, doctors abbreviated this recipe as ℞ –now often Rx – still used today to begin prescriptions and as a pharmaceutical symbol more generally. As David Sacks notes in his alphabet history Letter Perfect, “The x represents what was once a fancy crossbar [cf. ], inked onto the R’s tail as an identifying sign at the prescription’s start.”

Recipe is first recorded in the 1300s as a verb. By the 1500s, we see the word used as a noun, extended to cooking by a century later, where it has since prevailed. We can easily see how a recipe‘s ingredients and instructions jumped from medicine to cooking. Via French, the Latin recipere also formulated receipt, which was also used early on for medical prescriptions. This was superseded by its monetary sense, which emerges in the late 1500s.

Receivereception, and recipient are other words derived from Latin’s recipere. Literally, this recipere joins re-, “back,” and capere, “to take,” both of which densely populate the English language. But, with the recipes done and the food on the table, the only thing the Thanksgiving chef may want to “take back” is a stiff drink.  That’s one prescription I know I’ll be refilling this holiday.

m ∫ r ∫

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