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Four Surprising English Food Word Origins

We all know that certain food words, like the foods they symbolize, come from different cultures. The word "sushi," like the raw-fish-over-rice-balls it describes is definitely Japanese, just as "hamburger" is clearly German. But over time some of the origins of words and the foods they describe have been so hidden in the annals of history, that the stories behind certain food words we take for granted end up surprising us, such as:


Dan Jurafsky, linguist and author of The Language of Food, relates in the introduction of his book an anecdote in which a friend's astute child pointed out that a ketchup bottle was labeled "tomato ketchup," not just plain "ketchup." The label seemed redundant to her, as everyone knows that ketchup is always made out of tomatoes...or is it?

Turns out, it isn't. In fact, ketchup originated in China, and used to be made of fermented fish sauce, not tomatoes. The word "ketchup" originally meant "fish sauce' in the dialect of the Fujian people in Southern China. From Asia, ketchup eventually made its way to Europe and then to the Americas, where it lost the fish and took on the form that we all know and love today.


Why is it called a toast when people drink for the newly-married couple at a wedding or an honored guest at a feast? Apparently, according to Jurafsky's research, people used to drink alcoholic beverages like wine and ale with a piece of toast in it. Before this tradition of combining wine and toast died out in the 17th century, English diners began to develop a custom of having everyone at the table drink to someone's health. Hence, the linkage between the original toast (heated bread) and the wedding or other celebratory "toast."


Is it just coincidence that the traditional Thanksgiving bird shares the same name as a country in the Middle East? Apparently no, says Jurafsky. Turkeys originally came from Mexico and in the Aztec language, were known as "totolin" or the more tongue-twister-ish "huexolotl." The turkey emigrated to Europe after Columbus arrived in the Americas, where it grew increasingly popular through the 1500s.

By the mid-1500s, France and England were importing guinea fowls, which look similar to small female turkeys. These guinea fowls were originally called "turkey cock" after the Turkish sultans who first sold the fowl to the Europeans in the 1400s.

Soon, Portugal began to re-import the guinea fowl as they were shipping turkeys from the Americas. But thanks to Portugal's paranoia about its maritime explorations, people could not tell which bird came from where, and began to mix the two up. Eventually, the name "turkey" stuck with the bird from the Americas, and that is why we call the usual Thanksgiving centerpiece a "turkey" today.


The word alcohol comes from the Arabic word "al-kuhl" which refers to black powdered eye makeup which people used since the time of the ancient Egyptians. The makeup was made of ground minerals. Over time, the word "alcohol" came to mean any fine powder or a distilled essence or spirit. Then in the 1700s, alcohol developed the meaning by which it is known today--an intoxicating liquid found in many different drinks.