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.
Here’s a brief collection of English idioms based on foods.
You don’t know beans!
This idiom seems to have shown up in the 1850s. Linguists pose two differing arguments for its source. One school suggests that because beans are both small & a basic food source, to not know beans is to not understand the simple basics of life. The second school cites a rural American riddle: How many blue beans does it take to make seven white beans? The answer is, (for those of you who don’t know beans) seven. To make blue beans white you simply peel off the skin. Apparently this was seen as common knowledge. Anyone who couldn’t answer the riddle didn’t know beans.
This is a tricky one because though it appears to a food-based-idiom, it isn’t.
It comes from the steamy kitchens of the American frontier. Those who did the laundry typically used lye soap (which wasn’t as effective as it might have been). When the clothes got too dingy, launderers of the day boiled them for an extended time with starch. Pieces of clothing that had received this treatment tended to be uncomfortably stiff, & were referred to as hard-boiled. At some point the term morphed to describe a person who was likely wearing over-starched clothing & shared that clothing’s characteristics of being unyielding and emotionless.
Fishing for information
This idiom was introduced by none other than Geoffrey Chaucer in Canterbury Tales. Historians tell us Chaucer was quite the fisherman (in the literal sense). The intimate nature of Canterbury Tales shows us he was apparently also gifted at fishing for information.
In 1934, Time magazine appears to have coined this idiom, & defined it to mean, “leg-pictures of sporty females.” Like many idioms, this one reflects its times. The “sporty females” photographed in Time magazine all had skin the color of cheesecake. Modern cheesecake shots do not discriminate in terms of skin color & generally involve exposure of more than the legs.
If it takes a little digging to see racist attitudes or flat-out racism reflected in the birth of the idiom cheesecake, seeing racism in the origins of the idiom ham takes no digging at all. The minstrel shows of the 1800s that often featured white actors in “black face” are responsible. Often, the makeup was removed by use of ham fat. It seems the use of ham fat in concert with the horrible acting based on racist stereotypes gave birth to the idiom.
Nothing like a food-based idiom, eh? I’m hoping you’ll have something to say about it all in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster,Dictionary.com, & Webb Garrison’s Why You Say It (1992 - Thomas Nelson)
I write for teens & tweens, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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