The Etymology of Food, Part II: Meaty Stories

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Last week I wrote about the origins of words for fruits in English (and judging from the comments, irked a few people—go figure). Alas, I am merely a journalist, not a linguist, so I can't give a much more in-depth explanation of why no single English word rhymes with orange (many commenters suggested "door hinge," but that's two words) beyond my former history professor's—namely, that because the majority of words in English have either Germanic or Latin roots, those words with more unusual etymologies are less likely to have rhyming words in English.

As promised, today I'll share a few other interesting etymological nuggets, this time with a meatier theme.

"Beef" is a Middle English word derived from the Latin word bos (and the stem bov-), meaning cow. According to the Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto, "like mutton, pork, and veal, beef was introduced by the Normans to provide dainty alternatives to the bare animal names ox, cow, etc. when referring to their meat."

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition (as cited on gives a more thorough explanation of the difference between our words for the animal and the food. In a nutshell, the words "beef" and "cow" have the same Indo-European roots but developed differently in various branches. When the French ruled England after the Norman conquest, the French word buef (boeuf in modern French) came to be associated with the meat while the Anglo-Saxon word cu continued to refer to the animal we now call a cow.

Do you usually ask for ketchup on your beef burger? Believe it or not (and some people don't), you may be using a word with origins in China. According to Ayto, ketchup entered English in the 17th century (when it was usually spelled catchup), from a word for fish sauce in the Amoy dialect of southeastern China. It probably came to English via the related Malay word kichap. Jonathan Swift is the first on record using the spelling catsup, in 1730. It wasn't until later that century, in the United States, that the tomato-based condiment we now think of as ketchup was developed, according to Epicurious.

As I have discovered in my admittedly non-exhaustive research, it can be hard to distinguish a word's true etymology from wild, and sometimes humorous, theories. For instance, Ayto writes, "One of the oldest of etymological chestnuts is that sirloin got its name because a particular English king found the joint of beef so excellent that he knighted it. The monarch in question has been variously identified as Henry VIII, James I, and Charles II, but while the first of these is chronologically possible, in fact the story has no truth at all. The more sober facts are that the word was borrowed from the Old French surloigne, a compound formed from sur 'above' and loigne 'loin.'"

Speaking of etymological chestnuts, Christine Ammer explains the likely source of that turn of phrase in Fruitcakes & Couch Potatoes, and Other Delicious Expressions. She writes, "William Diamond's play The Broken Sword (1816), in which a character who constantly repeats the same story about a cork tree is interrupted by another who insists it is really a chestnut ('I have heard you tell the joke twenty-seven times and I am sure it was a chestnut')."

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