Mashed Radish on Grammar Girl

Mashed Radish is taking the week off for the US holiday of Thanksgiving, though I may sprinkle in a little etymology here and there as time permits.

In the meantime, enjoy the latest episode of the award-winning educational podcast, Grammar Girl. Its host and creator, the incredible Mignon Fogarty, reads an article I wrote for Oxford Dictionaries on the many side words in the English language. The episode opens with the fascinating roots of bailiwick, to boot. 

Continue reading “Mashed Radish on Grammar Girl”

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The etymological stuff of “stuffing”

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! 

m ∫ r ∫

Turkey (repost)

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.

Turkey

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 TurkeyTurkey 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.

m ∫ r ∫

“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 ∫