7 eye-opening “coffee” etymologies

Today is National Coffee Day. Tomorrow is International Coffee Day. But for java junkies like myself, every day is coffee day. Here’s a fresh cup of some tasty coffee-related etymologies.

How do you take your coffee? Why, with a little etymology. “Goblet of coffee” by Carlos Sillero, courtesy of freeimages.com.


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests coffee in 1598. Some etymologists have linked coffee to Kaffa, the Ethiopian region where coffee was first grown. But the word actually appears to derive from the Arabic qahwah, which may have originally meant “wine.” Some basic meaning of “brew” might explain the sense development. The OED notes that the root of this qahwah is a verb, qahiya, “to have no appetite,” which coffee and wine lovers will agree is absolutely preposterous. The Turkish kahveh , borrowed from the Arabic, influenced the spelling and pronunciation of coffee in its many European cognates (e.g., café).


In Italian, espresso literally means “pressed out,” alluding to how the strong, dark drink is produced under stream pressure. English has been sipping espresso since 1945. And don’t feel too bad if you’ve been called out for pronouncing espresso with an x: the English express is essentially the same word as espresso, from the Latin exprimere, “to push out.”  


US speakers shortened latte from caffè latte (1840s) in the late 1980s. It’s Italian for “milk coffee.” Café au lait and café con leche are the respective French and Spanish equivalents. Lait, leche, and latte are all poured from Latin’s lac, which also gives English the words lactate and even lettuce. The Greek cousin of lac is seen in galaxias, literally “milky circle,” hence Milky Way and galaxy. Coffee is truly of cosmic proportions. 


A caffè macchiatto is a “stained coffee,” as it’s espresso served with just a spot of hot or foamed milk. In Italian, macchia means “spot” or “blemish,” from the Latin macula for the same. Something that’s immaculate, then, is the etymological opposite of a macchiato. But like latte, both caffè macchiatto and the abbreviated macchiatto have been tasting immaculate on English-speaking lips since the 1980s.


The color of a cappuccino, apparently, resembles the brown hoods of the Capuchin monks. These friars indeed take their name from the distinctive “hooded cloaks,” or capuccio or capuche in Italian, they wear. These words come from the Latin Latin cappa, source of cap, cape, escape, chapel, and even a capella. The word was served up in English, according to the OED, by 1948, when author Robert O’Brien described the beverage as “gray, like the robe of a capuchin monk.” Brown? Gray? Whatever the case, cappuccino makes for a truly beautiful color.


The word coffee may or may not hail from Kaffa, but mocha indeed comes from Mokha,  the Red Sea coastal city in Yemen and historically important marketplace for coffee. Mocha coffee, now associated with the addition of chocolate to a latte, has been delighting English speakers since 1773. 


A café Americano is espresso with added hot water – a term that wasn’t intended as a compliment when Central American Spanish started using the term in the 1950s. The description stereotypes an American taste for a milder cup of joe. Perhaps a coffee snob will agree that the americano makes for an inferior cup, but any proper coffee addict will never turn down a good americano – or coffee-inspired word origin.

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How the “sausage” is made

Last post, I took the word bacon, well, “back” to its roots. As long as we’re on the subject of processed meats, just how is the sausage made? Sausage, of course, is seasoned meat stuffed into animal intestines. Delicious, no? The secret ingredient is salt, at least etymologically speaking.

"Sausage." Doodle by me.
Etymology cooks the best links. “Sausage.” Doodle by me.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), English starts serving up sausage sometime in the 1400s. Then, it was sausige, among other forms. Scholars root this in the Old Northern French saussiche, which ultimately (by way of Spanish and Italian) derives from the late Latin salsīcia. This is speculated to be a noun formed from *salsīcius, “seasoned with salt” or “prepared by salting.”

The link here – both for sausage as a product and sausage as a word – is salt. Etymologists see *salsīcius as coming from salsus, meaning “salted” and functioning as the adjective form of sal, “salt.” And neither sausage nor the English language went light on this sal.

High salt intake

Sauce derives from sal, again demonstrating that this French dialect was a picky eater when it came to this Latin l. Not so for other derivatives. Salad is from sal as well. How did we go from salt to whole sauces and salads? Why, salt was an important seasoning for and ingredient in various foods – in Latin, salsa means “salted things” – and so the part came to stand for the whole. Dip your chip in that.

Salami, meanwhile, is twisted off from Italian. Many Italian sausages can get spicy: The figurative saucy, sassy (a variant of saucy), and salty are indeed all about that kick.

A saltcellar, or salt shaker, is another derivative of Latin’s sal. Here, the cellar has nothing to do with basements. This cellar derives from the obsolete saler, ultimately going back (via French) to Latin’s salārium, “pertaining to salt,” as the OED explains.

This salārium continues to pay off. As I explored last year in my post on the origin of spice names at Oxford Dictionariessalārium was “originally money allowed to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt, hence their pay” (OED). And hence, English’s salary.

Chemists know well saltpeter and saline, yet other words generously sprinkled into English from Latin’s sal. So, too, though, the halogens, which can yield salt in chemical reactions. This halo- comes from Greek’s hals (ἅλς), “salt,” pointing us to that earlier linguistic lick of salt: the Proto-Indo-European *sal-, “salt.” Its Germanic derivatives eventually yield souse, silt, and, yes, salt.

Salt helps preserve sausages, and etymologically, sausages preserves the salt.

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As others kept their eyes peeled for wildlife, I kept mine peeled for – what else – a good etymology. On the Alaska cruise my wife, some close family, and I recently enjoyed, this effort entailed not staring down binoculars, but bottles. Yes, I’m talking about hooch.

Had to buy the beverage package, didn't I? "Hooch." Ink ballpoint, and orange highlighter on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Had to buy the beverage package, didn’t I? “Hooch.” Ink, ballpoint, and orange highlighter on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


Among other things, of course, many of Alaska’s historic towns are famous for their old saloons, where grizzly pioneers once guzzled hooch.

This term for alcohol, particularly liquor such as whiskey made cheaply and often illegally, is first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 1897, right in the gullet of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Hooch, the OED explains, is shortened from hoochinoo, taken from Hoochinoo, the name of a small native tribe who distilled it. The tribe dwelled on Admiralty Island right by Juneau. Alaskan hooch had quite the notorious reputation – the OED‘s earliest citation, M.H.E. Hayne’s Pioneer of Klondyke, describes it as “weirdly horrible” – and which reputation was often grossly transferred or contributed to Alaskan natives themselves. Apparently, soldiers, and later gold miners, picked up the term after the Alaska Purchase and it became especially popular during Prohibition.

Hoochinoo itself could be made from berries, flour, or sourdough starter with the aid of yeast and molasses. The name Hoochinoo, however, is made from the Tlingit, Hutsnuwu (Xootsnoowú), “grizzly bear fort.” Tlingit – whose initial Tl– is pronounced much like the final sound in the Nahuatl origin of tomato, tomatl, as we’ve seen – is the language of the selfsame people native to southeast Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

“Grizzly bear fort” is apt, as on Admiralty Island today, brown bears (over 1600) far outnumber natives (over 600). The bears also outnumber the speakers of Tlingit, estimated at around 500. I think I need some hooch.

Hooch_Ink, Ballpoint, Orange Highlighter - Scribblem ∫ r ∫


The stock market may not like recent declines in crude oil prices, but the grocery market just might. For the everyday consumer, these declines are spelling savings at the pump, which, for many people, like me, means a little extra cash for checkout lane. We just need to be sure that the food we buy is properly cooked, if we are considering crude‘s etymology.

"Crude." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Crude.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Crude comes into English in the late 1300s, when it referred to a material in its natural or raw state. Chaucer again gets the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first attestation. It comes from the Latin crudus, whose meanings were manifold, much like the word’s uses in English today. Its sense of “rough” was applied to wounds (“bloody” and “bleeding”), food (“unripened,” “uncooked,” and “undigested”), and behavior (“rude” and “fierce”). Crude oil, also known as petroleum and dating back to 1865, makes sense if we think of it as “unprocessed” or “unrefined.”

Related to crudus it is crudēlis, meaning “cruel” and source of the same, after its medial d deteriorated in French. The original force of cruel, however, was much more violent. Crudus also lives on in some far from crude-sounding derivatives. A recrudescence is a renewal or relapse, from a verbal form meaning to “get rough,” as in a battle or disease. The color ecru, from French écru, is considered “raw” or “unbleached,” in reference to fabric. Impress your friends by telling them you will bring crudité, or raw vegetables, to the Super Bowl party.

These French words may seem quite refined, but their core sense of “raw” points us right to crude‘s more ancient roots. For crude, historical linguists have reconstructed a Proto-Indo-European etymon of *kreuə-, “raw flesh,” a word we can imagine figured prominently in Proto-Indo-European foods and fights.

This *kreuə– not only means “raw,” but it also related to that very word raw. For *kreuə-, following some significant sound changes, yielded the Old English hrēaw. The initial /h/ in cluster /hr/ was reduced, vowels were shifted, and raw remains. A rude person might be crude, but the words are unrelated.

The root *kreuə– still flexes its muscle in words we get from Ancient Greek, whose tenderized *kreuə into κρέας (kreas)“flesh.” The pancreas, as an organ, is “all flesh.” Creatine helps build muscle and the extinct creodont was quite the carnivore. Creosote helps impart meat its smoky flavor when grilled, which is about the only way I think I can find crude oil the slightest bit appetizing.

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the food groups, part ii

This post, we pick up on the food groups, looking at dairyprotein, and oils.


Dairy is the kind of word that makes etymology nerds like me jump up and down. It features disguised compounds. When words get smashed together with other words, sounds change and forms change, sometimes making one word look like another, other times burying a compound altogether. As the preeminent etymologist Anatoly Liberman puts it, “compounds tend to deteriorate.”

Dairy is a full-fat example of this.

In Middle English, the word dairy took the form deieriejoining dey (among other forms) and the suffix –ery. Dey first referred to a “female servant.” Later, it meant a “farm servant” and “dairymaid.” The suffix -ery can denote the place of a particular activity, Here, a dairy was originally the room or building “for treating milk and its products” (Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology [ODEE]). Think bakery or laundry for some –ery comparisons.

There is much to unpack in terms of the historic constructions of women and work implied in dey, but, on an etymological level, what’s going?

Dey is from the Old English dæge, a “female servant,” but, literally, it meant a “kneader of bread.” The word is rolled out from the Proto-Germanic *daigjon; the sense of “kneading” is at root. The product of kneading, dough is a cognate. If we knead this *daigjon further, we find a Proto-Indo-European root *dheigh, meaning, according to Jordan Shipley, everything from “knead” and “mix dough” to “shape clay” and “put together.”

Human tongues have shaped some other fascinating forms out of this *dheigh, but we’ll save them for next post.


Protein: the building blocks of life and, as a coinage, an example of one of the building blocks of etymology. In an 1838 article in Bulletin des sciences physiques et naturelles en neerlande, Dutch scientist Gerhard Johan Mulder uses a French formation, protéine, to describe the composition of some organic substances.  Apparently, this word was the suggestion of Jöns Jacob Berzelius, the accomplished Swedish chemist, who is also given credit for polymer and catalysis, among other terms.

So, why protéine? At root is the Greek proteios, “of the first quality,” joining protos (“first”) and the -eios suffix. It was so named as a “primary substance…of material bodies of animals and plants” (Oxford English Dictionary).

Proto- is a member of the big family headed by the Proto-Indo-European *per-, which came to mean everything from “through” and “around” to “before” and “first.” Per-, peri-para-, and pro- may all be familiar prefixes derived from it. They are still productive today.

Our understanding of protein has evolved, to be sure, for now protein is considered one of the three food groups in Orange County, CA. The others being, of course, juice (i.e., blended juices and smoothies) and Starbucks.

Doodle by me. Click to enlarge.


Health advice aside, even etymology is urging you to use olive oil as your cooking oil. For oil, etymologically, is olive oil.

Oil, whose historic spellings are more varied than your choices of olive oil at the grocery store, is from the Old and Middle French oile, pressed from the Latin oleum. It referred to “oil,” thus “olive oil.” Old English had ele, a cognate of oil, but Germanic languages jumped on the Latin oleum food craze, and a new brand, if you will, made it into the pantry.

The Latin oil goes further back to the Greek elaion, the “olive tree” or “olive.” The Romans took elaion up as oliva, hence olive. The Online Etymology Dictionary speculates that the Greek root might be related to the Armenian ewi, “oil,” adopted into Greek from Aegean or Cretan tonuges. Aremenian is indeed an Indo-European language with some kinship to Ancient Greek. Wiktionary seconds this ewi cognate, adding the Old Church Slavonic’s loi, “tallow,” and posits a Proto-Indo-European *loiwom.

Petroleum is literally “rock oil,” joining the Latin petra (rock, via Greek) and oleum (as discussed above). Shipley observes that petroleum was “first extracted from fissures in rock.” Margarine is short for oleomargarine. The oleo- refers to “oil,” of course, and the margarine refers to “margaric acid,” named from the Greek margarites, “pearly,” for the acid’s crystal’s “pearly lustre” (ODEE). And now you know why a Margaret is so named.

Next post, we’ll pick up on *dheighincluding the surprising origins of lady and lord.


the food groups, part i

What’s on your plate? At the Mashed Radish, I hope its lots of…root vegetables. Please throw a tomato at that one. This post–just because–let’s have a taste of the etymology of the major food groups, as defined by the United States Department of Agricultures’ “MyPlate”:

The new food pyramid, courtesy of http://www.choosemyplate.gov. I think they have something against knives and spoons.

What can I say? Some people can’t resist chocolate. I can’t resist a good info-graphic by an under-appreciated department of federal government.

Conventionally, we speak of five food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. Fats, oils, and sweets–which I now often see treated together as “oils”–function as a sixth category. So, besides from the ground, where do “fruit,” “vegetable,” and “grains” come from?


Distinguishing between fruits and vegetables can be as spiky as a pineapple rind. Slate‘s Lexicon Valley episode “Legislating Language” will entertain and edify you with a story about a court case where this distinction truly mattered.

Etymologically, it’s a bit simpler, with fruit generally meaning “produce.” English plucked fruit directly from the Old French fruitin turn from the Latin fructuswhich indeed referred to this “produce” as well as “profit” and “satisfaction,” anticipating modern meanings lie the “fruits of one’s labors.”

In many ways, fruit is own metaphor: this fructus is from the verb frui“to enjoy.” A Proto-Indo-European root for “enjoy”–which some scholars reconstruct as *bhrug– and others as *brudh-may well have seeded the word. So, too, the Germanic-based verb brook. This evolved from an original meaning of “use” or “enjoy” to today’s sense of “put up with” and perhaps becoming fast fossilized in the construction brook no –, as in “I will brook no criticisms of our new Greek yogurt policy.”

We also have the Latinate frugal, from a notion of temperate use, and fruition, literally “enjoyment” but conflated with fruit and so thus a figure of “bearing fruit.”


If you don’t like to eat your vegetables, perhaps etymology will inspire your appetite. The Middle French vegetable dished English up its serving, from the post-classical Latin vegetabilis, an adjective that meant “animating” or “vivifying.” This life-giver is a very far cry from its pejorative use today to describe a person with brain damage.

If we dig deeper into the Latin soil, we will find vegetare, “to invigorate,” and vegetus, “lively, energetic.” Here, the Proto-Indo-European base is *weg-, “to be strong,” ultimately giving English wake, watch, and wax through Germanic seeds and vigilvigor, and velocity through Latin ones. Surveillance is a French take on Latin’s vigil.

Mothers wear many hats: they are caregivers, breadwinners, and…etymologists: Eat your vegetables indeed, they will literally make you strong.


The source of grain is the same as corn. American English restricts corn to “maize,” but it still can refer to cereal grains in British English. We can trace grain back through Old French to the Latin granum (think granuleand corn to Germanic root *kurnom or *kurnam. At some point, the Romanic and Germanic forms converge on the Proto-Indo-European *ger-. Jordan Shipley glosses this as “ripen” (from an earlier meaning of “grow old”) while the Oxford English Dictionary focuses on the Sanskrit cognate jr, “to wear down” or “waste away.” If the OED is correct, we may think of grains in reference to agriculture: a “worn down” particle, as the OED comments.

Next post, we will pick up on “protein,” “oils,” and the very interesting “dairy.”



Fast Mash

  • Champion, through French, derives from Late Latin campio, “warrior” or “fighter,” in turn from campus, meaning “field”
  • In Ancient Rome, such a campus staged military exercises as well as political and athletic events
  • From this campus English also gets such words as campaign, Champagne, a university campuscampscamp, and possibly even gambol and jamb
  • Its ultimate origin is unknown, but campus may go back to Proto-Indo-European *kamp-, “to bend,” and *kampos, “corner”

Broncos and Seahawks, you have joined that most prestigious company of champions who’ve contended for greatness: the college quad, s’mores and sing-alongs, American flag lapel pins, bubbly, highway robbers, frolicking, shrimp scampi, and bran.

Contend with that, you gridiron gladiators. Contend with etymology, the great emasculator.


At the root of champion is a word and a metonym–Latin’s campus, “field.” Perhaps the most famous field in ancient Rome was the Campus Martius, or Field of Mars. On this Tiber flood-plain Roman armies would muster, conduct exercises, and proceed in military triumph. Later, temples, theaters, and other imperial edifices populated the field, home to electoral events and athletic entertainment.

The Late Latin campio (declined along campion-) named a “warrior” or “fighter,” giving French champion. Perhaps the word comes straight from the Latin campus, but, as Partridge’s research shows, German mercenaries adopted campus and adapted it to *kamp. Indeed, German has Kampf, “fight,” “battle,” and “struggle,” as in Mein Kampf and Kulturkampf.

Champion moved into the athletic field, apparently, in the 1730s, with its sense of “first-place performer,” (Online Etymology Dictionary) probably with respect to boxing, horse-racing, golf, cricket, chess, or the Welsh, field and ice hockey-like game, bando.

Don’t mess with the bando stick. Courtesy of the National Museum of Wales.

Old French has champagne, “open country,” from an adjectival form of campus. The sense of military campaigns, or an “army’s operations in the field,” “arose in those conditions of warfare according to which an army remained in quarters during the winter and on the approach of summer went into the country…to conduct operations” (ODEE). Unsurprisingly, politics not only appropriated many military metaphors, but, as continues in large part today, marched in step with military matters.

Let’s pop open some Champagne, the province (literally, “open country”) in northeast France, “whence…the scintillant wine made there,” as Partridge glosses it.

Don’t get too tipsy if you have an exam on campus, the “college or university grounds,” which ODEE first cites in the 18th century in reference to Princeton in New Jersey. We’ve all done battle with  finals, but academics, too, has its share of military metaphors, including class, originally referring to “the people of Rome under arms” (Online Etymology Dictionary).

And don’t be a scamp, you mischievous, idling, rascally…highway robber? To scamp indeed meant to commit so in the 18th century, stealing a sense of “slipping away”–or scampering–that probably comes from the Latin excampare, literally, “out of the field,” as in fleeing the battlefield. Scamp may also explain scam.

Camping, decamp, encamp, the field mushroom champignon–these are other cognates of campus. But wherefore this campus?

Partridge speculates a relationship with a “remotely possible cognate” in the Hittite kanza, or “grass” or “cereal.” He also cites Bloch and von Wartburg’s hypothesis that it survives from “an ancient Italic language.” Shipley has it from the Proto-Indo-European *kam, meaning “bend,” “curve,” or “vault,” thus linking it to everything from cummerbund, gams (as in “legs,” from gambol), and camera. This same kink likely explains the Italian scampi (scampo is Italian for “prawn”).

Camera is dubious. And, as Shipley observes, cummerbund (Hindi: kamarband) is verily from Persian’s kamar, “girdle” or “waist,” along with a form of the root of bind and bend, but I see no compelling evidence to link kamar with campus.

Gambol presents an interesting case, however. “To frolick,” “to leap” or “spring,” “a horse’s hock”–such is the lineage, rooted in Greek’s kampe and Latin’s gamba, meaning “joint” and birthing everything from a door jamb to  smoked gammon. Perhaps these are grounded in the Proto-Indo-European *kamp-, “to bend,” as in a leg, yielding *kampos, a “corner.”

Breakfast of Champions

If indeed the Hittite kanza–again, “grass” or “cereal”gave rise to Latin’s campus, then General Mills’ Wheaties may be “The Breakfast of Champions” in ways more than one.

Lou Gehrig, 1934. Courtesy of pophistorydig.com. I’d like to see Lou Gehrig take on a Hittite. There’s an easy “Bazooka Joke” somewhere in there.

A good origin story, the “Breakfast of Champions” slogan is, and all-American–it features baseball, radio, and individual genius. Check it out here. But the origin of words, as champion itself can attest, isn’t always so straightforward. They bend, they curve. They are so often quirky, charming, unpredictable, unusual–perhaps more like Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions.   

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Fast Mash

  • Turkey first appears as turkey-cock and turkey-hen in 1541, originally referring to the sub-Saharan guinea fowl and later confused with the North American bird
  • Both the guinea fowl and turkey made it to English-speaking peoples by way of Turkish traders, called “turkey merchants,” who controlled much of the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages during the Ottoman empire
  • 16th-century Spanish conquistadors brought the turkey from North America (where the Aztecs had long before domesticated the bird in Mexico) to these Turkish hands

Last week, I looked into the etymology of burger for another guest post for LexicolatryTwo all-beef patties of American contradiction, the origin of burger is messy–just like a good burger should be.

But it’s probably not burgers on the minds or in the stomachs of many of my American readers as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches. Not turkey burgers, not Thanksgiving burgers–the bird’s the word.

And words, like food, are a tasty way to slice history.


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.

The guinea fowl (or guineafowl), courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica Online and Index Open.

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).

Talking Turkey

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 turkeyCold 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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breakfast, lunch, & dinner

Fast Mash

  • Appearing in the 15th-century, beakfast joins break and fast, with the latter indeed related to its adjective form
  • Lunch is less clear; lunch is shortened from luncheon, which may be an extension of lunch, possibly from lump (compare bump and bunch); luncheon may have been formed on analogy to words like truncheon
  • In the 16th-century, a lunch was a “thick piece” or “hunk”; Spanish has lonja, meaning “slice”
  • Dinner is from French, dîner, earlier disner, which possibly goes back to Latin disjejunare, meaning to “break one’s fast”; Latin has jejunus, meaning “fasting,” giving English jejune and the anatomical jejunum 

There’s a small piece of my heart that is black and rotten–black and rotten because I am a mere monoglot. I hold a quiet grudge against the United States’ prevailing language-learning paradigm of monolingualism–at least for the dominant culture. Instead, I have to pop into another language like I’m visiting a 24-hour diner, ordering up a plate of huevos rancheros at some ungodly hour. And sure, I know my way around a couple of diners, and I know how diners work as such, but there’s no Norma serving me coffee and pie as soon as I walk into the R & R.

At least, like a diner, a language is always open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Speaking of which–what about those words, breakfastlunch, and dinner?


I’m going to argue that nearly every native English speaker has had this experience. First is the recognition that breakfast is a compound of break and fastSecond is the question issued to a family member or teacher: What is this “fast” one is breaking with a bowl of Cheerios? Third is disappointment with English vowels. The way we say break and fast on their own is nothing like the way they sound in breakfast. Some of us go onto a fourth stage, though later: a fascination with the way that spelling can gives us clues about the stories words have to tell.

The OED first attests breakfast in 1463, around the time when the word booted out Old English’s equally hearty compound, morgenmete, or “morning food.” (Yes, you are looking at a precursor of meat.)

Why did the word enter into English at this time? Perhaps there was a religious influence, with the monastic habit of first eating only after morning mass. This certainly jives with the religious notes of fast, the term ultimately related to its meaning of “firm” or “steadfast,” which also gave rise to its speedier sense.   


Lunch‘s etymology is no quick lunch. It is a shortened form of luncheon, which itself may be an extension of lunch and modeled on words like truncheon and puncheon. (The -eon ending is not a meaningful suffix in its own right.)

Lunch could be from lump, in the way that hump and hunch and bump and bunch are related.

What could be lumpy about lunch? Your sandwich?

At one time, in the late 16th-century, a lunch was a thick slice or piece–a lunch of cheese, ham, or bread. Indeed, around the same time there was the Spanish lonja, which means slice” or “loin.” A hunk of bread or cheese? There is historical evidence for such a lunch, but more so at breakfast time.

Lunch could be influenced by the archaic though still regionally extant nuncheon.  It denoted a “light midday meal” or “slight refreshment” in the 14th-century, joining noon and scench (draught, cup). Johnson defines it “as much food as one’s hand can hold,” thus erroneously rooting it in clutch or clunch, a dialectical word for lump. Seems that meals-on-the-go aren’t so new a phenomenon. This is oddly reassuring. Somehow, though, I don’t think peasants took 15-minutes to shove food in their face while trolling Facebook.


Do you call it supper? Or, in some places in England, Ireland, and New Zealand, tea? Or, if it’s a little early in certain parts of the US, lunch? In my household growing up it was often din-din. Which apparently is attested in 1905. E.M. Forester gets the quotation in the OED. (Check out the Harvard Dialect Survey for the supper-dinner distinction in the US. And enjoy this discussion of the words for mealtimes in English-speaking parts of the world.)

The word dinner illustrates how culture shapes not just what we eat but when. According to Heather Arndt Anderson in Breakfast: A History: “Until relatively recently, lunch was the first meal of the day, but it was called dinner” (p. 5).

Dinner is related to dine, which comes into English in the 13th-century from the Old French dîner, previously disner (eat, have a meal). This is believed to be from the late and vulgar Latin disjejunare, joining dis- (an undoing prefix) and jejunare (to fast). Also the source of French’s déjeuner and English’s archaic disjune . 

Latin has jejunus, meaning “fasting,” “hungry,” and “thin.” English has the now obsolete jejune, signifying the same, though extended to terrestrial and spiritual barrenness or meagerness. Wiktionary traces jejunus farther back, with cognates including Sanskrit’s yájati (he worships, sacrifices) and Ancient Greek’s hágios (sacred, holy). As in, Hagia SophiaNow, jejune is childish, probably because of confusion with juvenis, Latin for “youth,” and French’s subsequent jeune. 

And the jejunum? The second part of the small intestine? The Online Etymology Dictionary explains it best: “So called because it typically is found empty during dissections, perhaps because it would tend to drain in a body laid on its back.”

I think I just lost my lunch. Er, dinner. Er, breakfast.

Supper, often used interchangeably with dinner, particularly in the United States, is from sup, “to eat the evening meal.” The verb is French in origin, super, and is related to soup. Think: bread soaked in broth, which the Online Etymology Dictionary notes was a traditional French laborer’s last meal of the day. Post-classical Latin called this suppa. English has a word for thissop. Supper, sop, soup–all related to sup, a Germanic base (sip, swallow) that may be rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *seue– (to take liquid), with some generous helpings of cognates we will save for leftovers.

Breakfast for Dinner

So, what’s up with the shifting words and times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Class, custom, work, technology. Those kinds of things. You know, culture.

Here’s a taste. If you’re a farmer who wants to make most use of daylight, you’re at your work early and hungry for a big meal in the middle of the day, which would sustain you until your work is done at last light. But consider the impact of the Industrial Revolution–now you’re working long hours in a factory, thus necessitating some kind of lunch in the middle of your shift. You’d probably want some fuel before going in, too, thus making breakfast a smart idea. And electricity would make it possible to eat later in the day, which became fashionable and was emulated by the working classes.

But this is just a small slice–or should I say lunch–of the changing customs of mealtimes. The BBC has done some great work on the subject, if you’re not yet full. And if you really want to dig into it, this food timeline dishes it out.

Who eats what for when gets confusing, so let’s just smash them together. Like  brunch, which originates as English university slang. For this, the OED cites Punch magazine on August 1, 1896:

An excellent portmanteau word…indicating a combined breakfast and lunch. At Oxford, however, two years ago, an important distinction was drawn. The combination meal, when nearer the usual hour, it is ‘brunch,’ and when nearer luncheon, it is ‘blunch.’

I, for one, will pass on that cronut for blunch. But, since hipsters killed brunch, I suppose we might have a need for blunch after all.