It’s National Pie Day, according to the internet powers that be. Well, we have to treat ourselves to just a little etymological slice of pie, don’t we?
Now that Easter’s passed, what to do with all of those eggs? If they’re not chocolate or hard-boiled, whip up an omelette. You can throw in some mushrooms, peppers, cheese, and perhaps finish it off, etymologically speaking, with just a skosh of…knife?
Butter is a bread-and-butter vocabulary word, but it may have spread all the way from ancient Scythia.
Originally, we didn’t make messes. We ate them.
In his presser yesterday, Trump claimed: “To be honest, I inherited a mess. It’s a mess. At home, and abroad — a mess.” Clearly, he was describing his own news conference, which was a hot one, because the facts just don’t back him up. But Trump does raise an interesting etymological question: Where do we inherit the word mess from?
On the table
English first serves up mess around 1300. Back then, it named “food for one meal.” The word comes into English from the Old French mes (Modern French mets) and, before it, the Latin missus, a “portion of food” or “a course at dinner.” This etymological idea of “a serving” explains why we use mess as a general term for some loose “quantity,” particularly food, e.g., a mess of greens.
In Latin, missus literally means something “placed” or “put” – here, food on the table. The root verb is mittere, which shifted from “send” in Classical Latin to “place or put” in the language’s later years. Mittere has also delivered bundles of English words, from mass and mission to commit and promise.
Getting into a “mess”
Over the centuries, mess lost its Michelin stars, so to speak. By the 1400s, mess referred to goopy foods like porridge, hence the biblical idiom mess of pottage. (Today, we might recognize such a mess as the pasty gruel often plated up to ravenous children in the hellish summer camps of TV and movies.) This sense lead to a kind of “mixed, liquid slop fed to animals” in the 1700s. Alexander Pope, as an early instance, mocks metaphorical hogs chowing down on mess in his 1738 “Epilogue to the Satires.”
And it’s from this notion of a nasty, mushy mixture that we get the modern mess: the senses of “jumble,” “confusion,” and “untidiness” emerge in the written record around the 1810s. Offshoots like mess up, make a mess of, and messy appear by the 1830-40s. To mess around, playfully or idly, is attested by the 1850s. Sexually? We’ve been messing around since at least the 1890s.
The food sense of mess, though, kept cooking. In the 1400s, mess also referred to “a company of people who took their meal together,” especially military personnel in groups of four. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare mentions “a mess of Russians,” referring not to all the controversies surrounding the Trump administration, but to the four noble lovers in disguise.
From “dining companion,” mess later extended to the food and building where soldiers ate, thus compounds like mess bag, mess cook, messmate, mess hall, and hot mess.
Not-so-hot, new slang
Yes, a hot mess was a originally a warm meal, especially a soft, porridge-like mixture (as we previously saw) ladled out in mess halls. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a figurative use of in a hot mess, or “in a challenging situation,” in the 1860s. And the modern slang hot mess, “someone or something in extreme confusion or disorder,” has first been found from one P.J. Conlon in an 1899 Monthly Journal International Association Machinists: “Verily, I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.” Nowadays, hot serves to intensify the sense of messiness.
Merriam-Webster Associate Editor Emily Brewster has more on the history of hot mess – ever the apt phrase in our political moment, no matter what Trump wants to tell us, or himself – in her terrific video.
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Crowds are just a bunch of crud, etymologically speaking.
We’ve been comparing – or, if you’re a certain president, complaining about – crowd sizes of late. One conservative estimate tallies Trump’s inaugural crowd at 250,000, about 1.5 million short of Obama’s in 2009. The Women’s March on January 21, meanwhile, may have drawn over 4.8 million protesters across the globe. So, as we count up the final numbers, let’s look into the origin of the word crowd.
Working the crowd
As a noun, crowd hasn’t been crowding the English language for very long. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates crowd to 1567, adding that it replaced the usual earlier term, a press, which goes back to the 13th century.
The noun crowd comes from the verb crowd. But this verb originally meant “to press on, hasten, or drive” in Old English. One would crowd a ship, say, by pushing her off land. The OED has actually dated this usage, incredibly, to 937, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Crowd’s modern sense, “to gather in large numbers closely together,” appears by the beginning of the 1400, and we can easily see how the action pushing and shoving transferred to a thronging multitude.
The Old English crowd – crúdan – is related to the German kroten, “to oppress,” and the Dutch kruien, “to push or drive (e.g., a wheel-barrow).” The OED notes that the verbal crowd is “not known in the early stages of the other [Germanic] languages,” and in English, “was comparatively rare down to 1600.”
The etymological center of crowd is unclear. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, though, traces it back to the Germanic *krudan, from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *greut-, “to compress” or “push.”
Crowds and whey
One thing that does get compressed, in a manner of speaking, are curds. These little lumps are formed when milk coagulates – and, as a word, curds (and its derivative, curdle) may be formed from the same root as crowd. Some etymologists think speakers flipped around the sounds of the Old English crúdan to get curd, attested in 1362. This flipping process, called metathesis, is a common one in English, among other languages, and has produced words like curl, task, and even bird.
For curd/crowd, etymologists point to the Irish gruth, “curds,” which they root in the PIE *greut-. For the meaning of curd as a “crowded” substance, they cite the very chemical action that yields curds, coagulation, as an analogy. This word is skimmed from the Latin cogere, “to curdle, compel, or collect,” literally meaning “to drive together” (com-, “together,” plus agere, “to set in motion,” source of act.)
I, for one, think curds are delicious, but perhaps you find them to be a bunch of crud. Etymologically, you may not be wrong: Many think crud, by that same process of metathesis, indeed comes from curd. This would mean crud switched the –ur- sound of curd, which switched the –ru– of crowd/crúdan. And so crud ‘returns’ to its original form.
The wrong crowd?
Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green finds crud in Scottish English for “thickened or coagulated milk” and in US English for “curdled milk,” perhaps as back-formed from the adjective cruddy. Green also locates crud for “any filthy or disgusting matter” all the way back in the early 16th century. Crud, in some way or another, made it into US military slang for any “disease” or “worthless person” in the 1930s, expanding to “diarrhea,” “a slob,” and “venereal disease” in the 1940s and 1950s. A crud may be one to let slip a little crowd-poison, a euphemism for public flatulence.
Trump may yet find validation, then. Crowds are crud, etymologically…and when you’re just not drawing the kind of numbers you hoped for.
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Many of us will be stuffing ourselves with stuffing this Thanksgiving holiday. But we won’t be going for seconds of the original stuffing, if we consider the etymology of this delicious dish.
Knowing one’s stuff
Today, stuff can refer to just about anything: belongings, information, material. But in the 1330s, stuff protected knights: It was the quilted material they wore under their chain mail. Come the 1400s, stuff named military equipment, stock, stores, and provisions. Various trades applied stuff to their working materials, and by the late 1580s, stuff became a generic word for “things.”
The verb stuff follows a similar development. In the 1380s, Chaucer used stuff for “furnishing a place with stock or stores.” Stuff also could “equip an army or fort with military equipment” in the early 1400s. Eaters were being stuffed with food by the 1430s, as were birds by cooks. Over the following century, stuff expanded to include “filling,” “packing,” or “cramming” something.
As for that scrumptious stuffing we plate up on Thanksgiving? The Oxford English Dictionary attests the culinary term by 1538, citing The Dictionary of Sir Thomas Elyot, the first English dictionary of Classical Latin. In an apt coincidence, Elyot defined the word fartile: “stuffynge, or that wherewith any foule is crammed or franked.” Many feasters call this signature Thanksgiving side dressing, but the term can depend on your regional dialect and whether you cooked it in or out of the bird.
That’s the stuff
We know stuff, originally stoffe or stof, comes from the Old French estoffe (“textile material”) and estoffer (“to furnish” or “stock” and possible source of stifle). From here, the etymology isn’t clear. Many scholars think the words came into northern France from the Old High German *stopfôn, “to plug with tow or oakum,” loose fibers obtained when old rope is untwisted. And this *stopfôn may be borrowed from the Latin *stuppāre, “to stop up (with tow or oakum).” The suspected root is stuppa, “coarse flax” or “hemp,” which also yields the English noun and verb stop.
So, the ropy material stuppa was used a stopper, borrowed as a Germanic verb for “plug,” adapted in French as a fabric padding. When the word entered English, speakers likened “stopping, plugging, and padding” to “stocking something up,” first armor and armies and later birds and bellies. In English, literal stuff grew to all sorts of figurative stuff, so useful was this catch-call term for the “things” that makes something up.
Thanks to all that stuffing, it’s not old ropes were loosening on Thanksgiving, though. It’s our belts. Happy Thanksgiving!
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As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m busy giving thanks with some family visiting Ireland from the states. So, I thought I would dish up this post from the archives on the holiday’s main attraction: the origin of “turkey.”
It turns out the bird and the country don’t just make for junior high geography jokes or World War I mnemonics. They’re actually connected–dare I say–at the thigh. Well, sort of.
Originally, turkey–or turkey-cock (attested in 1541) and turkey-hen, back when our intimacy with where our food comes from necessitated such distinctions–referred to the guinea fowl, a bird native to sub-Saharan Africa.
According to some historians, these African guinea fowl made their way into Europe during the Middle Ages through the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of North Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East. So-called “turkey merchants” traded the birds and other goods and wares.
In the early 16th-century, Spanish conquistadors imported into Europe what we now think of as the turkey, domesticated by the Aztecs in Mexico as early as 800 BC, through the Turkish-dominated Mediterranean, whereupon English-speaking peoples misidentified this bird with the African guinea fowl. (Apparently, corn was also known as turkey corn or turkey wheat due to the same Turkey-by-way-of-Spain-by-way-of-the-New-World channel.) The English name for the American bird stuck, even after the Portuguese brought back–and correctly distinguished from its distant American cousin–guinea fowl from West Africa. Cookbooks from the late 1500s and early 1600s provide evidence that the turkey was already a centerpiece at English feasts, including Christmas. As for why we came to eat turkey for Christmas and Thanksgiving, Slate offers a digestible bit of food anthropology here.
The Ancient Greeks called the guinea fowl μελεαγρίς, apparently a reference to the Meliagrides, sisters of the Argonaut Meleager, leader of the famed Calydonian boar hunt. Upon Meleager’s tragic death, his sisters were changed into guinea hens. Father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus used the name to classify the genus of the North American bird (Meleagris gallopavo), while the name also identifies a common species of the African guinea fowl (Numida meleagris).
As for the Turkish? They call the bird hindi. It means “Indian,” and is probably from the French poulet d’inde, or “chicken from India.” Lest we forget, those European explorers–um, conquerors and colonists–did think the New World was Asia. Hence, the West Indies. Hindi and Indian? Yes, they are related.
And as for Turkey? Turkey is named for the Turks. Romans in the Middle Ages called it Turcus and the Greeks, Tourkos. These come from the Persian national name turk, which folklore glosses as “strength,” but can mean “beautiful youth,” “barbarian,” or “robber.” There is an early Chinese word, tu-kin, referring to a people in the mountains of east-central Asia, who may be connected to ancient ancestors of the Turks.
None of this may be turkey shoot, except for cold turkey. Cold turkey–suddenly and completely withdrawing from drugs, originally heroin (and later chocolate), including the intense symptoms therein–is attested in 1910, 1921, or 1936, depending on your source. Thanksgiving leftovers testify that cold turkey requires very little work, thus the original sense of “without preparation.” A cold shoulder (of mutton) is related, “considered a poor man’s dish and thus, perhaps, something one would set out for an unwanted guest with deliberate intention to convey displeasure,” the Online Etymology Dictionary delightfully observes. But let’s not leave our Canadian friends out, where Parson notes cold turkey refers to door-to-door selling or salesmen, perhaps for the same low-prep reasons.
As for “talking turkey,” Parson defines it as talking “business” or “sense,” with turkey standing for “the substantial and succulent part of a (Christmas) dinner.”
Oh, and that thing dangling from the turkey’s neck? That’s called a wattle. It’s a fleshy caruncle. Birds (and other animals) also have dewlaps and snoods. Apparently, when we named the anatomy of birds, Linnaeus left the room and Dr. Suess took his place. Folds of skin: bon appetit, right?
Whatever’s on your table and whatever you are celebrating this week, enjoy your holiday, give thanks, be safe, and, by all means, avoid fleshy caruncles.
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Autumn means pumpkins. They sit atop our porch steps and grace our desks in miniature. Pumpkin pies cool on our windows sills. Pumpkin-shaped candies overstuff our grocery shelves. Pumpkin spice flavors our lattes – and just about everything else marketers can get their hands on. Let’s carve into this word pumpkin and scoop out all of its timely etymological seeds.
The earliest record the Oxford English Dictionary finds for pumpkin comes in the form of an insult. In 1647, Nathaniel Ward, a caustic-witted, English-born Puritan who fled to (now) Massachusetts, published a pamphlet opposing the tolerance of other Christian sects, among other topics. In one edition of his screed, called The Simple Cobler of Aggawam in America, Ward bemoans the “pumpkin-blasted brains” of his fellow settlers, whose diet, apparently, depended too much upon this fruit. (Yes, the pumpkin is technically a fruit.) And indeed, Boston, Mass. was nicknamed Pumpkinshire in the 18th century.
Pumpkin pie, meanwhile, dates to the 1650s. By the 1680s, pumpkin, thanks to its rotundity, was mocking “stupid” people, as was pumpkin-head come centuries later. Pumpkin, of course, was repurposed by the 1900s as a term of endearment. And in 19th-century US slang, saying someone or something was “some pumpkins” was to call them “important” or “impressive.”
Pumpkin is a variant of pumpion, itself an alteration of pompion. Pompion, attested in the early 1500s, is borrowed from the French pompon, which names a kind of melon. Pumpkins are native to the Americas, so, when English settlers encountered this squash, they likened it to the plump fruit they were more familiar with back home. English speakers ended up fashioning the ending of pompion with -kin, a Germanic-based, diminutive suffix that survives in some surnames like Watkins and handful of words, including napkin.
The French pompon grew out of the Latin pepō, in turn from the Greek πέπων (pepon); both named types of gourds and melons eaten when ripe. Ripe is the key: Greek’s pepon meant “ripe” (or “yellow”), stemming from the verb πέσσειν (pessien), “to cook.” This pessein and cook, believe it or not, were concocted in the same etymological kitchen: they share the Proto-Indo-European root *pekw-, “to cook” or “ripen.” Concocted and kitchen also come from this root, thanks to a series of complicated sound changes that took place long ago.
And inside melon hides the very word pumpkin. Melon is shorted from Latin’s mēlopepō, from the Greek μηλοπέπων (melopepon). Melopepon marries μῆλον (melon) and πέπων (pepon). As for melon? That actually means apple, making melopepon “ripe apple.”
So, pumpkin means “melon,” and melon means “apple.” The ancients really need to get their fruit and veggies sorted out. This Halloween, I think I’ll just stick with candy.
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Disaster has been averted. This week, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever announced it was hiking its prices on British supermarkets in response to the plummeting pound. But Tesco, the biggest supermarket chain in the UK, refused to pay. Unilever stopped deliveries, leaving such staples like Marmite – Britain’s iconic, love-it-or-hate-it, savory, salty yeast paste – to dwindle to dangerously low levels. After both Unilever and Tesco saw their stock prices drop, though, the two companies came to a resolution – and #Marmitegate came to an end.
What does Marmite mean, anyways, and where does the name come from?
In the late 19th century, German chemist Justus Liebig found a way to render brewer’s yeast into a foodstuff. In 1902, Britain’s Marmite Food Company brought the extract to market, originally advertising the dark, sticky paste for use in stews and soups, which could be cooked in a marmite. A marmite is a large, usually earthenware stockpot with a cover, like the one Marmite has displayed on its packaging from the start:
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests marmite as marmet in 1581, noting the cookware was commonly hung over fires in the West Midlands. Marmite as such emerges by 1805, commonly employed by soldiers, who later used it slang for pot-like “bombs” during World War I.
The English marmite comes from the French marmite, a “cooking pot.” (English may have borrowed the word into the language on two occasions, as the OED’s different regional and military citations suggest.) But the origin of this French marmite, attested in the late 1300s, is obscure. Some, however, including France’s own National Center for Textual and Lexical Resources, have a theory: it comes from a different meaning of marmite, a “hypocrite.”
A hypocrite? Love it or hate it, the idea is that a marmite hides what’s cooking inside just as a hypocrite conceals their true character. Apparently, this marmite literally means “murmuring cat,” joining marmotter (an onomatopoeic word for “mumble, mutter, murmur”) and mite, a term for a “cat.”
The OED, for one, is not convinced by this etymology – though some may joke a mumbling cattiness is as iconically British as Marmite itself.
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You say potato, etymologists say batata. It’s National Potato Day in Ireland, so let’s dig up the roots of the beloved spud.
English cultivates its potato from the Spanish patata, a variant form of batata. But the batata is actually the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), completely unrelated to what we commonly refer to as the potato.
That’s a lot of potatoes.
Christopher Columbus is credited with bringing batata to Spain – and into the Spanish language – at the end of the 15th century. The crop and word thereafter spread throughout Europe and, thanks to Portuguese traders, to many parts of Africa and Asia.
The word batata comes from an indigenous Central American language, perhaps from Haitian Taíno, the language of the self-same people who inhabited much of the pre-Columbian Caribbean and Florida. Taíno also gives English the word hurricane, a word much on the minds of many along the Southeast coast today.
In English, the earliest record of potato comes from English naval commander and notorious slave-trader John Hawkins in his 1565 travel writings: “These potatoes be the most delicate rootes that may be eaten, and doe far exceede our passeneps or carets.” Batata, meanwhile, is attested in translation by the 1570s, noted as a “victaill of muche substaunce.”
Then, in the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors brought back what we now familiarly refer to as the potato (Solanum tuberosum) from the Peruvian Andes, where it was known as papa. Papa is a word for “potato” in Quechuan, a language also ultimately responsible for the words jerky, guanine, and Coke.
This plant especially proliferated in England, Ireland, and the US. In 1597, English botanist John Gerard discussed “Virginia potatoes,” thanks to the vegetable’s erroneous associations with Sir Walter Raleigh, who, according to tradition, first planted the tuber in Ireland. Sir Francis Drake and that same John Hawkins also compete for this title; the actual, direct source is unclear .
In the early record, it can be hard to tell whether writers are referring to the batata or the potato. But potato took over as the generic term for such tubers by the early 1700s, with the distinguishing sweet potato emerging by the mid-1700s.
Potato or batata, the English language definitely didn’t call the whole thing off.