The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu




A Linguist Reads the Menu

Dan Jurafsky


New York • London


For Janet




How to Read a Menu


From Sikb
j to Fish and Chips

Ketchup, Cocktails, and Pirates

A Toast to Toast

Who Are You Calling a Turkey?

Sex, Drugs, and Sushi Rolls

Potato Chips and the Nature of the Self

Salad, Salsa, and the Flour of Chivalry

Macaroon, Macaron, Macaroni

Sherbet, Fireworks, and Mint Juleps

Does This Name Make Me Sound Fat? Why Ice Cream and Crackers Have Different Names

Why the Chinese Don’t Have Dessert





Image Credits




two questions. The first came from Katie, the very observant seven-year-old daughter of my old friends Jim and Linda. Katie asked why the label of a ketchup bottle read “tomato ketchup.” (Go look: most of them do.) Isn’t that redundant, she asked? It was a sensible question. After all, if I go into a bar and order a margarita, I don’t order a “tequila margarita.” A margarita is made of tequila. (Otherwise, it would be a daiquiri. Or a gimlet. Or even, God forbid, a cosmopolitan.) The tequila is understood.

So why do we mention the tomatoes in ketchup?

The second question came from Shirley, a friend from Hong Kong. Back when I was a young linguist studying Cantonese there, everyone assured me that the word ketchup came from Chinese—the second part of ketchup,
, is identical to the word for “sauce” in Cantonese, and the first part,
is part of the Cantonese word for “tomato.” Shirley was so convinced that ketchup was a Chinese word that when she went to a McDonald’s in the United States she confused her friends by asking what the English word for
was. But how could ketchup be Chinese?

It turns out Katie’s question and Shirley’s question have the same answer. The ketchup we eat today is nothing like the original version created many centuries ago. Few people today would recognize the link with the original
, a Chinese fermented fish sauce first
made in Fujian province (an area that also gave us the word
). From the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Chinese traders settled in ports throughout Southeast Asia and brought Chinese fermentation methods. They fermented local fish into ke-tchup—a fish sauce like the modern Vietnamese fish sauce
nuoc mam
—they fermented soybeans into soy sauce, and they fermented rice with a red ferment, molasses, and palm sugar and distilled it into an ancestor of rum called
. Arrack was the first widely produced liquor, long before rum or gin had been invented, so when English and Dutch sailors and merchants came to Asia around 1650 to trade for silk, porcelain, and tea, they bought vast quantities of arrack and used it to invent the world’s first cocktail (“punch”) for their navies. (And punch led eventually to modern cocktails like daiquiris and gimlets and margaritas.). Along the way, they also acquired a taste for the pungent fish sauce.

The traders brought ke-tchup back to Europe and over the next 400 years this dish evolved to fit Western tastes, losing its original ingredient, the fermented fish. Early recipes replaced the fish with English mushroom or, as in Jane Austen’s household, walnuts. By the nineteenth century in England, there were many recipes for ketchup; eventually the most popular one added tomatoes and then came to America where it acquired sugar. Then it acquired even more sugar. This version eventually became America’s national condiment, and was then exported to Hong Kong and the rest of the world.

The story of ketchup is a fascinating window onto the great meetings of East and West that created foods we eat every day, telling us how sailors and merchants spent a thousand years melding the food preferences of the West and the East to form our modern cuisines. But this great process produced more than just ketchup, as we can tell from linguistic evidence scattered through modern languages. Fish and chips, England’s national dish, began with Persian
a sweet-and-sour stew with vinegar and onions loved by the Shahs of sixth-century Persia. The dish leaves its marks in the names descended from
in different languages—French dishes like
, Spanish dishes like
, or Peruvian dishes like
—and the story moves from the golden palaces of medieval Baghdad to the wooden ships of Mediterranean sailors, from the religious fasts of medieval Christians to the cold Sabbath fish of the Jews who left Spain in 1492.

, and
all descend from one sweet doughy predecessor, when a Persian food, the almond pastry called
, intermingled with the pastas of the Arab world and the durum wheat that the Romans had planted in Sicily, the breadbasket of the Roman Empire.

We’ll look at the answers to questions of science, politics, and culture. Who came up with the idea of putting cream or juice into a bucket surrounded by salt and ice to make sorbet or ice cream
and how does it relate to the patent medicinal syrups that became our modern Cokes and Pepsis? The answers lie in the adventures of the words
, and
, and their descent from an Arabic word meaning drink or syrup.

Why is the
, a bird native to Mexico, named for a Muslim democracy of the eastern Mediterranean? It has to do with the fanatic secrecy of the Portuguese in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, whose attempt to keep other countries from finding their overseas sources of gold and spices and exotic birds led to the confusion of the turkey with an entirely different bird that was imported by the Mamluks.

Why do we give
at weddings? It is not related to the custom of toaster ovens as wedding presents, but the two do share a surprising history involving toasted bread.

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