The stories behind the names of the things we eat can often be as delicious as the items themselves. Here’s a random sampling from words that made their way into English during the 1700s:
Pumpernickel – this dense, tasty bread is of German origin, as is its name. Oddly, the name pumpernickel referred originally to a coarse, dark, brutish fellow. Etymologists argue over whether the first part is pumper, meaning the noise of a heavy fall, or pumpern, meaning to break wind. The second part is a nickname for the name Nicholas, which interestingly is also equated with goblins, louts & rascals. Etymologists can’t piece together exactly how pumpernickel moved from labeling the louts or farts to labeling the bread, but given the fact that the paler flours tended to be reserved for the wealthy, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine how any generally negative term got applied to a distinctively dark bread.
The sandwich, as many have heard, was named for John Montague, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. Some claim the Earl was very fond of gambling – so fond, he often wasn’t willing to put down his cards for events as mundane as meals, so he simply wrapped a hunk of meat in a slice of bread and ate without slowing the game(s). Other historians claim that the inaugural sandwich was most likely eaten at the Earl’s desk as he addressed his many responsibilities in business and politics.
Welsh rabbit is actually a snub directed at the good people of Wales. Typically, Welsh rabbit is melted cheese or cream over toast or crackers. It seems the Welsh were perceived as living on the wrong side of the tracks. The snub suggests that melted cheese over toast was the nearest thing to rabbit the Welsh could afford.
The word chowder has etymologists duking it out. Some claim it heralds from Brittany, where a form of the French word chaud, meaning hot, gave birth to the name for the pot one puts over the fire, the chaudiere, or cauldron. These etymologists claim the “housewives of Brittany” used the term chowder for both the pot & for what they cooked in the pot. Other etymologists stick with the same French roots for the word, but place the word’s birth in Newfoundland in the early Americas.
When we toast someone, we typically don’t raise a piece of heated bread to do so, but to some degree, our ancestors did. In a classy establishment of the 1700s, a tiny piece of spiced toast was placed in the bottom of a glass filled with ale or another beverage. When the glass was raised in honor of someone, the drinker did, indeed, raise the toast.
What food names do you wonder about? Or what might you have to say about the origins noted above? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Etymonline, Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins & Wordnik
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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