Words for food and drink

There are many words we use every day and take for granted. When you start looking more closely, it’s amazing how much history you can find in ordinary everyday words. For instance, think about the words you use for items of food and drink.

Did you know:

— Over one-third of the common words for food and drink have been in the language for 1,000–1,500 years.
— ‘Tea’ and ‘coffee’ are quite modern words. They were not used in English until the 16th and 17th centuries.
— A grape was once called a wineberry.
— The word ‘apricot’ is related to ‘precocious’.
— ‘Loaf’, ‘lord’ and ‘lady’ are related words.
— The original meaning of ‘lettuce’ was ‘milky’.
— The word ‘canola’ was invented in the 20th century.

Here are some ‘food’ extracts in Old English (but in a modern font) from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

AD 896:

Tha thæs on hæffeste tha wicode se cyning on neaweste thære byrig that hwile the hie heora corn gerypon.

In the harvest afterward the king camped close to the city while they reaped the corn. You can see the word ‘corn’.

AD 1042:

And swa mycel orfes wær thær geares forfaren swa nan man ær ne gemunde.

And more cattle died this year than any man ever remembered.

The word for cows is orfes.

AD 1052:

ac he ne wandode na him metes to tylienne.

and he did not flinch from providing himself with food.

You can see how metes, from which we get ‘meat’, originally meant ‘food’.

This extract is from the great saga Beowulf, dating from well over 1,000 years ago:

Thegn nytte beheold, se the on hand bær hroden ealowæge, scencte scir wered.

Then the knight who held in his hand an ornate ale-cup poured out the pure drink.

You can see how ‘ale’ comes from ‘ealo’ which is part of ealowæge, the word for ale-cup.

135 words for foods and drinks

The table below shows about 135 fairly common words. Three columns show approximately how long they have been used in English. You can get a fairly good idea of what the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans might have eaten when you look down the first column. Of course, they ate some of the other foods listed,
but they used different words. Get ready for a long scroll down!


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Stories behind 20 food words

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