The Christmas meal
This week with acknowledgment that there are heaps of other traditions going on this time of year, here are some etymologies for a few items on the traditional Christmas dinner table.
The word turkey showed up in English in the 1540s & originally applied to the guinea fowl of Madagascar (which the English mistakenly believed came from Turkey). The turkeys on many Americans’ tables today are another bird altogether, a species first domesticated by the Aztecs. Spanish conquistadors met their first new world turkeys in 1523, and brought them back to Europe & northern Africa. Within fifty years, those new world turkeys had become the main course of choice for most British Christmas dinners.
Apparently, the ancestors of the word ham had their sights on moving up in the world.The original source of the word ham is a Proto-Germanic word for shinbone — this word became an Old English word meaning the hollow or bend of the knee, and from there we have the modern English word ham, meaning the thigh of a hog (usually salted or cured). This upward-moving definition is a good thing, as a hog’s shinbone wouldn’t be much of a holiday feast.
And of course, there’s the Christmas goose. Its source is the Proto-Indo-European word *ghans-, meaning goose. This word’s progeny form a multi-cultural (or multi-lingual, I suppose) cornucopia of words meaning goose, in all these languages: Sanskrit, Lithuanian. German, Old Frisian, Old Norse, Latin, Polish, Greek, & Old Irish.
In the 1580s, yam made its way into English through Spanish (igname) or Portuguese (inhame) from a West African language, where nyami simply meant to eat.
And to close all this off, the word cranberry came to English in the 1640s — an American English adaptation of the German word kraanbere, a similar berry found in Europe, most likely named kraanbere because the stamen of the flower of this bere, (berry), resembles a kraan (crane).
May your holiday traditions - whatever they are - be filled with tasty food, stellar people, & general wonderfulness.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, Etymonline, Merriam Webster, & Collins Dictionary.
I wanted to call this post, “What’s good for the goose is good for the barnacle.” The title was simply too long for the blog’s title format. Such is life.
Any birders out there will know that there is a bird species that goes by the name barnacle goose. What I find linguistically fascinating about the barnacle goose is that its name is redundant. The word barnacle first appeared in English in the early 1200s, meaning a species of wild goose. It wasn’t until the 1580s that barnacle applied to a type of shellfish. Though nobody’s certain, many etymologists believe this has to do with a combination of two things: 1) the barnacle goose was never seen raising its young by Europeans, as it indulged in this process in the European-free Arctic, thus causing those curious Europeans to come up with unlikely folktales, & 2) the barnacle of the shellfish variety catches its food with feathery, downy tendrils. So obviously, those funny-looking shellfish HAD to be the eggs of the barnacle goose!
While we’re considering our friend, the goose, here are some other goosely language thoughts:
1540s – goose begins to mean a simpleton or foolish person
1845 – the idiom, to cook one’s goose is born
1866 – goose egg comes to mean the number zero
1880s – goose picks up another idiomatic meaning, a jab in the derriere
The term gander appears to have originated with the Lithuanian word, gandras, or stork, which morphed to mean single men (much like “he’s going stag”). It was probably the similar initial sound (& possibly a dearth of storks) that led gander to mean male goose. By 1886 the idiom to take a gander was born, based off the gooselike (or possibly single guy) craning of one’s neck while taking a gander.
So followers, please consider yourself goosed. What have you to say about all these gooseworthy thoughts?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Etymoniline.com & the OED.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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