Food for thought

We obviously spend a good deal of time eating in order to survive, yet I would bet that few of us actually give much thought to where the words describing what we eat originate. The word "food" itself, of Germanic origin, is related to the word "fodder" ("food for animals") and possibly to "fat," suggesting a linguistic link that may be disturbing to dieters.

The fact that modern English is somewhat of a hybrid of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French elements is illustrated very clearly by the names of many meats in English. The words "sheep," "cow," "chicken," "calf," "deer," and "swine" are of solid Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) stock, whereas their edible counterparts ("mutton," "beef," "poultry," "veal," "venison," and "pork") are of French origin. Of course, since the Battle of Hastings English has borrowed extensively from other languages around the world, explaining how our language has been enriched with such words as "enchilada" (from Spanish for "added chile pepper"), "cookie" (an Anglicization of the Dutch word for "little cake"), "falafel" (from the plural of the Arabic word for "pepper"), and vermicelli (Italian for "little worms") to name just a few.

Our meals also have interesting origins. "Breakfast" logically means to break a fast, and the Spanish word for breakfast "desayuno," has exactly the same meaning. The French cognate "déjeuner" originally meant "breakfast," as well, but due to semantic shift has come to mean "lunch." As for "breakfast," in French it is now called a "petit déjeuner," literally "a little breaking of the fast" (perhaps a stealth nibble before the actual fast is broken!). "Supper" is closely related to the word "soup," both of French origin, and "dessert," also with Gallic roots, stems from the verb "disservir," meaning "to clear the table."

The word "restaurant," which is the French word for "restorative," originally meant a "restorative broth" for those who were unable to eat a solid meal in the evening. In the 18th century, however, the meaning shifted, and the word began to refer to places where restorative foods, including this broth, were sold and, over time, has come to mean most establishments where food is sold and eaten.

Bon appétit (or, literally, "Good appetite" in French, if you prefer)!

(posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken)


Anonymous said...

I always wondered why a "cookie" wasn't called a "bakie" instead, and now I guess I know! Thanks.

Silas said...

Thanks a lot for reading! Actually, as you may know, in British English (and some Commonwealth Englishes), a cookie is called a 'biscuit', which is taken from the French 'biscuit' ('cookie'), literally meaning 'cooked twice' (the first biscuits were a travelling food that needed to be cooked twice to remove moisture and ensure long-term storage ability). In US English, 'biscuit' exists, but it's more of a combination between a dinner roll and a scone.