Tag Archives: etymology

Eat your words

Where do the words "ketchup," "toast" and "salad" come from? [Photos: Steven Depolo (l), Adam Singer (c), stacya (r)/Flickr Creative Commons]

Where do the words “ketchup,” “toast” and “salad” come from? [Photos: Steven Depolo (l), Adam Singer (c), stacya (r)/Flickr Creative Commons]


Read this post from Alex Gallafent. Or listen to the podcast above.

I didn’t think too much about what food I stuffed into my mouth when I was a kid, so long as there was lots of it.

No longer. Now I often want to know as much as I can about what’s headed for my belly: what the ingredients are, where they came from, and how they were put together.

Something else interests me too — the words we use for food. Dan Jurafsky is way ahead of me on that one: He’s a linguist at Stanford, and the author of “The Language of Food.” [Listen to this interview with did with Jurafsky earlier this year.]

“It’s like we speak these words and we just look right past them,” he says. “And in fact they’re telling us the history of our culture and our globalization, and the way we’ve been interacting for a thousand years.”

But most of us do look right past food words, so I thought it might be fun to run a little experiment.

I took my friends Adam and Jenny out for dinner at a local burger joint in Brooklyn. I asked them: Where do common food words like “ketchup” and “salad” come from? What would they guess? Oh, and I had Dan Jurafsky listen in on their linguistic guesses, to see how good their hunches were.

We began our meal by toasting Adam, who just got a new job. So where does “toasting” someone come from?

Adam thought that it might have something to do with toasted bread, or breaking bread with people. Jenny countered with the idea that it came from a Latin root and morphed into “toast” somewhere along the way, possibly through misspelling.

“So maybe it’s from middle English,” Adam offered, “like toostare, or something, and it was something you did with mead. Maybe you toasted your hops.”

Dan Jurafsky, author of "The Language of Food" (Photo: Alex Gallafent)

Dan Jurafsky, author of “The Language of Food” (Photo: Alex Gallafent)

The mead idea was actually pretty close, Jurafsky says. “We used to drink, in the Middle Ages, sweetened mead with toast in it,” he explains. “The drinks of the Middle Ages were much more hearty — people got a lot more of their sustenance from their wine and their beer than we do now. So toast in wine was a very common thing.”

That drinking tradition then gave rise to slang phrases. “Somewhere in the 18th century, it became the custom to talk about the society lady of the hour as if she spiced the party, just as the toast spiced the wine,” Jurafsky says. “So we talked about her as the ‘toast of the town.’ And then we began to raise our glasses to those people — the glasses which still barely had toast in them, for not very much longer. So that’s the story.”

Alright, next up: what about the word “ketchup?”

Adam and Jenny had no idea. “Catch up?” But they thought it might come from Vietnam, or “some sort of Asian-type cooking.” Like some sort of “fermented sauce,” Adam ventured.

Jenny added a piece of pop culture trivia: “Wasn’t there an episode of Mad Men when they were talking about ketchup as catsup? It’s ‘catsup,’ right?”

Not bad. “Ketchup comes from Chinese, it was originally a fermented fish sauce,” Jurafsky says. “You stick fish in a vat, put a lot of salt in, and you go away. It was made in Vietnam, Thailand, and in the southern part of China” — the region that traded with those two places.

“The fact that it’s spelled in two different ways is usually a hint that a word comes from a language that may not have had the same orthography as us,” he says. “So the fact that we spell with a ‘c-a-t-s’ or with a ‘k-e-t-c’ tells us that it was borrowed from Chinese, which of course didn’t use the Roman alphabet.

The different spellings were yet another by-product of imperial competition: “English, Dutch and Portuguese sailors and traders who first encountered the word had to figure out a way to spell it,” Jurafsky points out. “And so they all spelled it in different ways.”

Ketchup found its way to Europe and then, in the late 19th century, America. And that’s where the tomatoes and the sugar got added — of course.

And one more: how about “salad?”

Jenny began by sounding out the word: “Sal-ad. But ‘sal’ is salt. That’s not right.”

“Maybe it is,” said Adam in reply. “At another time, people probably salted a lot of things. I wonder if something salted that wasn’t necessarily cooked, but was cured in somewhere using salt, lead to the word salad.”

“Excellent!” says Jurafsky. “Salad indeed comes from salt. The Latin is erba salata, salted greens. And the word salt is there in so many of our words. Sauce and salsa and salami — they literally all just mean salted, as does salad.”

Low sodium wasn’t a big priority back in the old days, it turns out: “Before refrigeration, salt was our major means of preserving, so words like sausage and sauces [referred to] salting — ways to preserve foods.”

Jurafsky’s work is a reminder that food words signify much more than food: They reveal the ways people have borrowed from each other down the centuries, passing things along this culture to that, transforming foods and ways of life along the way.


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How did English become the language of science?

The Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons, 1927. Hendrik Lorentz, Leiden University, seated between Madame Curie and Einstein, chaired the conference. (Photo: iharsten via Flickr)

The Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons, 1927. Hendrik Lorentz, Leiden University, seated between Madame Curie and Einstein, chaired the conference. (Photo: iharsten via Flickr)

Here’s a post from Nina Porzucki.

Permafrost, oxygen, hydrogen — it all looks like science to me.

But these terms actually have origins in Russian, Greek and French.

Today though, if a scientist is going to coin a new term, it’s most likely in English. And if they are going to publish a new discovery, it is most definitely in English.

Look no further than the Nobel prize awarded for physiology and medicine to Norwegian couple May-Britt and Edvard Moser. Their research was written and published in English. This was not always so.

“If you look around the world in 1900, and someone told you, ‘Guess what the universal language of science will be in the year 2000?’ You would first of all laugh at them because it was obvious that no one language would be the language of science, but a mixture of French, German and English would be the right answer,” said Michael Gordin.

Gordin is a professor of the history of science at Princeton and his upcoming book, Scientific Babel, explores the history of language and science.

Gordin says that English was far from the dominant scientific language in 1900. The dominant language was German.

“So the story of the 20th century is not so much the rise of English as the serial collapse of German as the up-and-coming language of scientific communication,” Gordin said.

You may think of Latin as the dominant language of science. And for many, many years it was the universal means of communication in Western Europe — from the late medieval period to the mid-17th century, and then it began to fracture. Latin became one of many languages in which science was done.

The first person to publish extensively in his native language, according to Gordin, was Galileo. Galileo wrote in Italian and was then translated to Latin so that more scientists might read his work.

Fast forward back to the 20th century, how did English come to dominate German in the realm of science?

“The first major shock to the system of basically having a third of science published in English, a third in French, and a third in German — although it fluctuated based on field and Latin still held out in some places — was World War I, which had two major impacts,” Gordin said.

After World War I, Belgian, French and British scientists organized a boycott of scientists from Germany and Austria. They were blocked from conferences and weren’t able to publish in Western European journals.

“Increasingly, you have two scientific communities, one German, which functions in the defeated [Central Powers] of Germany and Austria, and another that functions in Western Europe, which is mostly English and French,” Gordin explained.

It’s that moment in history, he added, when international organizations to govern science, like the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, were established. And those newly established organizations begin to function in English and French. German, which was the dominant language of chemistry was written out.

The second effect of World War I took places across the Atlantic in the United States. Starting in 1917 when the US entered the war, there was a wave of anti-German hysteria that swept the country.

“At this moment something that’s often hard to keep in mind is that large portions of the US still speak German,” Gordin said.

In Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota there were many, many German speakers. World War I changed all that.

“German is criminalized in 23 states. You’re not allowed to speak it in public, you’re not allowed to use it in the radio, you’re not allowed to teach it to a child under the age 10,” Gordin explained.

The Supreme Court overturned those anti-German laws in 1923, but for years that was the law of the land. What that effectively did, according to Gordin, was decimate foreign language learning in the US.

“In 1915, Americans were teaching foreign languages and learning foreign languages about the same level as Europeans were,” Gordin said. “After these laws go into effect, foreign language education drops massively. Isolationism kicks in in the 1920s, even after the laws are overturned and that means people don’t think they need to pay attention to what happens in French or in German.”

This results in a generation of future scientists who come of age in the 1920s with limited exposure to foreign languages.

That was also the moment, according to Gordin, when the American scientific establishment started to take over dominance in the world.

“And you have a set of people who don’t speak foreign languages,” said Gordin, “They’re comfortable in English, they read English, they can get by in English because the most exciting stuff in their mind is happening in English. So you end up with a very American-centric, and therefore very English-centric community of science after World War II.”

You can see evidence of this world history embedded into scientific terms themselves, Gordin said.

Take for example the word “oxygen.” The term was born in the 1770s as French chemists are developing a new theory of burning. In their scientific experiments, they needed a new term for a new notion of an element they were constructing.

“They pick the term ‘oxygen’ from Greek for ‘acid’ and ‘maker’ because they have a theory that oxygen is the substance that makes up acids. They’re wrong about that, but the word acid-maker is what they create and they create it from Greek. That tells you that French scientists and European scientists of that period would have a good classical education,” Gordin said.

The English adopted the word “oxygen” wholesale from the French. But the Germans didn’t, instead they made up their own version of the word by translating each part of the word into “sauerstoff” or acid substance.

“So you can see how at a certain moments, certain words get formed and the tendency was for Germans, in particular, to take French and English terms and translate them. Now that’s not true. Now terms like online, transistor, microchip, that stuff is just brought over in English as a whole. So you see different fashions about how people feel about the productive capacity of their own language versus borrowing a term wholesale from another,” Gordin said.


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A history of Hebrew, told one word at a time

Ben and Jerry's ice cream in Israel is labeled "glida," the Aramaic word for frost. In modern Hebrew, it means ice cream. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in Israel is labeled “glida,” the Aramaic word for frost. In modern Hebrew, it means ice cream. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

Here’s a guest post from Daniel Estrin, who lives in Jerusalem.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the history of words over centuries.

In Israel, linguists are still compiling a similar dictionary for the ancient Hebrew language.

English as we know it has been around about 860 years.

“Without bragging, the history of Hebrew is much older,” said Gabriel Birnbaum, a senior researcher at Israel’s official Academy of the Hebrew Language. About three times older.

Birnbaum’s job is to write the entries for the Hebrew Historical Dictionary. Four days a week, seven hours a day, he sits alone in his small office, surrounded by dusty volumes of ancient Hebrew texts, and types out definitions.

“The ideal is to have all the words with all their history, how they started, when they started to be used, the whole of the treasure of the Hebrew language,” said Birnbaum. “The English have it, the French have it, the Hungarians have it, so we should also have it.”

Hebrew was born around the 12th century BC. It’s the language of the Bible; Jesus knew Hebrew. But a few decades after Jesus’ death, Jews were exiled from the Holy Land, and they adopted different languages.

“Hebrew for 1,700 years wasn’t spoken by anyone,” Birnbaum said. “Some people call it a dead language. But if it was dead, it was a very lively corpse.”

A boy reads the ancient Hebrew text from a Torah scroll at his Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall holy site in Jerusalem. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

A boy reads the ancient Hebrew text from a Torah scroll at his Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall holy site in Jerusalem. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

It really wasn’t dead at all. Jews wrote their literature and liturgy in Hebrew, and recited prayers in Hebrew, as they do to this day. In the late 19th century, waves of Jews moved to the Holy Land, and revived Hebrew as a spoken language.

But how do you order ice cream in an ancient tongue?

“They didn’t have words for office, or eyeglasses, or for matches,” said Birnbaum. “So from where will we take this? Of course we can coin new words. But first we have to use all the words we have in our sources.”

That’s how the mysterious Biblical word chashmal, referring to God appearing with fire and light, became the modern word for electricity. In an ancient Aramaic translation of a Biblical passage, manna from heaven is described as thin as frost, or glida. Today, glida is the frosty stuff you order at the ice cream parlor.

Hebrew is based on “roots,” patterns of letters that are the building blocks of the language. The three-letter combination in the word “write” also appears in the words for “article,” “reporter,” “letter,” “spelling,” “address,” and anything having to do with writing.

More than half of the roots in modern Hebrew come straight from the Bible.

“If I give you a text of Old English, you won’t understand a word. Those words have changed a lot,” Birnbaum said. “Now you take an Israeli child, you give him a text from the Book of Genesis, or a text from the Book of Samuel, he can understand, not to exaggerate, 70 percent of it. He can understand it.”

The Hebrew Language Academy began compiling its historical dictionary in 1959, but only came out with a first edition in 2005. There are many words from the past few thousand years to comb through, not to mention all the new words of the last century.

Linguists at the Hebrew Language Academy are still coining new words for terms that didn’t exist in the Bible or the Middle Ages – and Israelis often email the language academy to request new words.

Staffer Tzipi Senderov said there’s been high demand lately for one particular word.

“People always write the same thing. ‘I need to know the Hebrew term for cupcake,’” Senderov said. “Then we have to say, ‘There is no alternative,’ and people are like, ‘Why, can’t you find an alternative?’”

They did. The Hebrew Language Academy has posted two options online for the public to choose from. So far the more popular choice is ugoneet, which in English translates to “mini-cake.” The other contender is mufeen mekushat, or “decorated muffin.”

Do these alternatives to cupcake sound tasty?

“No, and it wouldn’t catch, whatsoever,” Senderov said. “That’s the problem.”

All the Hebrew Language Academy’s new words will eventually end up in the historical dictionary. But sometimes, its new words just don’t catch on.

At birthday parties across Israel, a cupcake may just stay a cupcake.


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What Drones, Bees and Marilyn Monroe Have in Common

Here’s a guest post from Carol Kozma

In the 1930s, Admiral William Standley visited the United Kingdom when the Royal Navy gave him a presentation of the “Queen Bee”. That was a remotely controlled aircraft– a prototype the Royal Navy had developed for the gunnery to use as target practice.

“Admiral Standley was so impressed that when he came back to the United States, he got his men on it, and in homage to the Queen Bee, he chose the name drone.”

Marilyn Monroe as Norma Jean Dougherty (Photo: commons.wikimedia/David Conover

Marilyn Monroe as Norma Jean Dougherty (Photo: commons.wikimedia/David Conover

That’s according to Ben Zimmer, a linguist who writes the language column for the Washington Post, and the executive producer of vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus.

He recently discussed the origins of the word “drone” and its new use as transitive verbs.

To hear more about drones, and how Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Marilyn Monroe and Ronald Reagan are all connected, take a listen.



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An Australian Dictionary Redefines Misogyny

Australian Conservative Party Leader Tony Abbott, accused of “misogyny”

In politics, words can take on new meanings in the blink of an eye. The phrase “binders full of women” had zero currency before the second Obama-Romney debate. Now it’s what many people remember as the debate’s takeaway moment, full of perceived meaning about women, power and the workplace.

In Australia, another word has become caught up in a political storm over the role of women in society and politics. It was uttered—several times—by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

“I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny,” Gillard told the Australian parliament.

That was the start of a speech that has rapidly become famous around the globe, thanks to YouTube.

Gillard was defending her government, which had been accused of protecting the speaker of the house, who’d been caught using sexist language in text messages.

Rather than talk about that case, Gillard turned the tables on her government’s accusers, specifically Conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott.

“The Leader of the Opposition says that people who hold sexist views and are misogynists are not appropriate for high office,” said Gillard. “I hope the Leader of the Opposition…is writing out his resignation.”

“If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia,” she contined, “he needs a mirror.”

Gillard’s opponents didn’t take kindly to this speech. More than a few objected to her use of the word misogyny. They said that was going too far, much farther than the word “sexism.”

Sexism, they pointed out, means discrimination based on a person’s sex. But misogyny means intense dislike and mistrust of women.

That’s what the dictionaries say. For the time being at least.

Sue Butler, who is editor of the best-known dictionary of Australian English, the Macquarie Dictionary, said it’s time to update the definition of misogyny. After watching Gillard’s speech, Butler and her fellow editors wondered about their dictionary’s definition of misogyny.

Like most other dictionaries, the Macquarie Dictionary used a definition “that had been standard for some centuries”: the hatred of women.

But Butler and her team of editors didn’t think that Gillard was using the word quite like that. She wasn’t accusing Abbott of a “pathological hatred of women.” The accusation was more of a “common garden prejudice against women, particularly women in positions of power.”

Butler’s team tracked the evolving meaning of misogyny back to 1970s feminist discourse in the United States, where it was often used as a synonym for sexism; a synonym “with a bit more bite to it perhaps,” said Butler. “But still in the same range of meaning of entrenched prejudice.”

And so the editors of the Macquarie Dictionary have announced that they will be updating their definition of misogyny to reflect the way it has evolved in recent decades.

That’s only enraged Prime Minister Gillard’s political opponents for a second time. They say the dictionary’s editors are letting Gillard off the hook, rather than forcing her take responsibility for her hyperbole.

To which Macquarie editor Sue Butler shrugged, and pointed out that many words change their meanings over time.

But what of the statements made by Australia’s Conservative leader Tony Abbott—the very statements that Gillard was calling “misogyny”?

Abbott once wondered whether it was a bad thing that men have more power than women, and suggested that men might be more “adapted to exercise authority.”

And then there were his personal attacks on Julia Gillard.

Gillard told MPs she was offended when Abbott stood next signs that said “Ditch the Witch” and one that called her “a man’s bitch.”

It almost makes the Obama-Romney debate, repeatedly described in the US news media as “feisty,” seem friendly.



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