Stories behind 20 ‘food’ words

Let’s go beyond the dictionary.

Here are the stories behind about 20 ‘food’ words. Some Icelandic words are included for comparison, because that language is an almost direct descendant of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings and their successors. You might find this section heavy going, but please persevere! This is real etymology. Etymology is about history. History is about the world of people, and you can see how people borrowed, adapted and invented words throughout history. You can also see how closely some languages are related.


Old English æppel, related to Old Saxon appel, Old Norse apall. Modern German Apfel, In.modern Icelandic, apple is epli but the Old Norse root can be seen in appelsina, orange

In a well known story, Eve gave Adam an apple when she tempted him in the Garden of Eden. However, the Biblical version of the myth does not mention an apple: it refers only to ‘fruit’. The Hebrew word was tappuah. This was at one time thought to imply apple, as the Arabic tuffah meant apple. However, apples were rare in the region of Palestine. It has been suggested that the fruit given by Eve to Adam, in the ancient myth, was a citron, apricot or quince. As the first two did not reach the Middle East until much later, it is probable that the fruit was a quince.apricot 16th century apricock via southern European languages from Arabic al-birquq. It is related to the Latin praecox, early ripening, from which we get precocious.


Old English berie, berige, related to Old High German beri. In Middle English, various types of berries were named by adding the prefixes blac-, ivi-, mur-, strau-. A grape was a winberge, wineberry. In modern Icelandic a berry is ber, a grape is vinber.


16th century from Old French carotte, originally related to Greek karoton. The modern scientific words carotin, carotene, denoting the orange pigment in plants, were coined from the same source.

The vegetable originally came from the region of Afghanistan. spreading as a weed in Europe, eventually cultivated in north-western Europe by the 13th century. In modern Icelandic, it is gulrót, literally yellow-root. Modern German has Karotte among its words for carrot. The Greek karoton is not related to another Greek word, keratin, which is the name of the compound that is the basic constituent of skin, horns, hooves, nails, hair and feathers.


Old English cese, related to Saxon kasi. Modern German for cheese is Kase. An impressive sounding word you might like to use and amaze your friends is caseous, meaning ‘cheese-like’.


From Old English cipp, cyp. Related to Saxon kip (post), Old Dutch kip (the beam of a plough), Old German kip (axle), Old Norse kepr (stick or staff). As you can see, these are all pieces of wood, not potato. Later, in Middle English, the word came to be used for a small piece of potato which was fried.


16th century from Italian caffe from Turkish kahve from Arabic qahwahCafé comes from the same source.


14th century from Old French. Originally referred to flour or meal, later to a mixture of oatmeal with milk or water. As a very humble and insipid food, considered appropriate for invalids and, later, prisoners, the word gave rise to the meaning of gruelling, hard-going, in the 19th century. In modern French, gruau retains its original meaning of partly ground grain or oatmeal. The liquid  form, with water, is tisane de gruautisane means a drink or infusion.


Late 19th century, coined in the USA. Hamburger has nothing to do with ham. It was named after ‘Hamburg steak’, a spiced minced beef dish made in the German city of Hamburg. German immigrants introduced the recipe into the USA. It became known as Hamburger steak and by the turn of the century simply as hamburger. In our lazy way, we now often call it merely a burger. We even have a ‘cheeseburger’, which is somewhat illogical, when you think about it, because there is no city called Cheeseburg!

According to an article by David Wroe in The Age, Melbourne 29/6/2000, the hamburger has a history going back beyond the city of Hamburg. It is claimed that Turks and Mongolians, the people of old Tartary, put pieces of steak under the saddles on their horses. By the end of a day's riding, the steak was well and truly pulverised. The practice is said to have spread to Latvia and Estonia, where the meat was fried with onions. From there, the primitive steak tartare was taken to Germany, and that is where Hamburg eventually came into the picture.


13th century letuce from Old French laitues, letues from Latin lactica, ‘milky’ because of its thick white juice. The cultivated lettuces we eat nowadays do not seem to have the milky juice of their ancestors. Modern German has Lattich and also Garten-Salat, garden-lettuce. Modern Icelandic also has salat. Like the English word salad, these derive from Latin sal, salt, indicating the meaning for something seasoned with salt. In Historie of Plants (1597), John Gerard observed:

...Lettuce cooleth the heat of the stomacke, called the heart-burning; and helpeth it when it is troubled with choler; it quencheth thirste, and causeth sleepe.

He also discussed whether it should be eaten before or after the main meal. The former had the advantage of increasing the appetite, whereas the latter ‘keepeth away drunkennesse’.


Old English hlaf, bread or pieces of bread, related to Old Norse hleifr and Old High German hleib. Modern Icelandic for breadloaf is brauð-hleifur (brauth-hleifur). In modern German, Laib, loaf.

Old English hlaford, from hlaf + weard (guard, defender) gave rise to modern English lord. Hlafdige from hlaf + dearge (kneader) gave us our word lady. Lammas Day, still in the calendar of the Christian church, had its origins as a harvest festival, ‘loaf-mass’, in Anglo-Saxon times. On August 1, offerings were in the form of bread made with the first corn of the harvest. Hlafmæsse, loaf-mass, became hlammesse, lammesse in Middle English.

Loaf-derived words which have dropped out of use are found in Middle English laferd-dom, lordship; laverding, lording sir, as a form of address. Some have been retained: loverd-lich, lordly; laverd-scipe, lordship. Modern Icelandic still has lávarðthur (lávarthur), lord.


19th century, coined from margaric, from the Greek for ‘pearl-like’. The name of the product relates to its appearance, not to what it is made of. Margarine was the world's first synthetic food. It was patented in France in 1869. The original margarine was made from beef fat, milk, water and chopped cow’s udder. Improvements were obviously needed in order to make the product more tasty! In about 1910, scientists discovered how to make use of vegetable oils to make margarine.


Old English mete, Middle English mete, meat, food, related to Old Saxon meit, Old High German maz, Old Norse matr. Middle English also had: mete-bord, table; mete-custi, hospitable, mete-gevare, host, mete-sel, dining hall. Modern Icelandic matur means food. In English, meat originally meant food in general or a specific kind of food, and in the 14th/15th century came to denote the main meal of the day. Later, it was used to mean the flesh of animals. Its origins lie in ancient roots to do with measure rather than flesh. We still use mete to mean to hand out, share out.


14th century from Old French oignon. It was originally named after its appearance: the Latin root is unio, meaning a large single pearl. This is related to Latin unus, one, and may be a reflection of the ancient Egyptian belief that the onion represented the perfect sphere of the universe. Such mystical perfection, alas, will not stop your eyes from watering when you peel an onion! John Gerard's Historie of Plants (1597) has some interesting comments on the onion:

...The Onions do bite, attenuate or make thin, and cause drynesse: being boiled they do lose their sharpnesse, especially if the water be twice or thrice changed, and yet for all that they doe not lose their attenuating qualitie.

...The Onion being eaten, yea though it be boiled, causeth headache, hurteth the eyes, and maketh a man dim sighted, dulleth the sences, and provoketh overmuch sleep, especially being eaten raw.


13th century poding from Old French boudin. Related to Low German puddek, sausage. The meaning of the word in modern French gives us the clue: it is black pudding. The meaning of pudding as a sweet dish at the end of a meal did not emerge until the 16th century. It originally denoted part of an animal's intestine or stomach stuffed with meat, oatmeal and seasoning, similar to the Scottish haggis. Celtic languages have similar words, Irish putog, Gaelic putag, Welsh pwtyn, with meanings related to pudding or to a bag or inflated skin. Such sausages, fore-runners of our black pudding, are mentioned in ancient Roman writing. In 1775, Dr Johnson gave one of his definitions of pudding as ‘the gut of an animal’.


14th century from Latin rapum, turnip.A yellow flowered plant in the family Brassica which yields oil-bearing seeds. The plant is called rape in Britain but in Australia it is known as Canola, from Can(ada), where this form was developed, + ola, from Latin oleum, oil.


This is an eponym from the middle of 18th century. People ate food between two slices of bread, but John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, was particularly fond of doing it. He spent a lot of time gambling and had his food brought to him at the gaming tables in this way.


15th century Latin sesamum via Greek from Arabic simsim. In the story of  Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, the magic words to open the cave are, ‘Open Sesame!’ Sesame seeds were used for making cooking oil. At the end of the story of Ali Baba, the thieves are killed by having hot cooking oil, made from sesame seeds, poured over them while they hide in large jars. The magic words have an ironic black humour about them.


17th century from via Dutch tee from Amoy (Chinese dialect) t'e, from old Chinese d'a. The colloquial English char comes from Mandarin (Chinese dialect) ch'a.

The drink has been known in Japan and China for at least 1,600 years. Sailors and traders borrowed the word and called it tay. About 300 years ago, Dutch traders took tea from Java to Europe. It was being drunk in England by the 1660s, when the famous diary writer, Samuel Pepys, called it tee.

The arrival of tea-leaves in Britain created problems for some people. In 1685, the widow of the Duke of Monmouth sent a pound (about half a kilogram) of it to her family in Scotland. They examined it for some time, and then asked the cook to work out what to do with it. He boiled the leaves, threw the water away, and served up the result in the same way as he served up spinach. Needless to say, it was not enjoyed by the family and guests, and it is said the the general reputation of tea suffered for some time in Scotland. (Source: Select Anecdotes: From Various Sources, J.S.Laurie, published by Thomas Murby & Simpkin, Marshall, London, 1864.)


Old English hwæte, from Saxon hweti, related to Old High German hweizi, Old Norse hweti. Modern Icelandic is hveiti, modern German Weizen. It can be seen that these words have some relationship to white. This is because of the colour of the flour produced when the grains were ground. Modern Icelandic for white is hvitur, modern German weiß. Here, we have further examples of words for vital components of daily life, which have remained almost the same for 1,500 years.

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