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The Scrivener: Takeway

Brian Barratt, an author who values words more highly than diamonds, draws our attention to the tasty fact that ordinary everyday words for food items often have more than ordinary stories behind them.

Ordinary everyday words for food items often have more than ordinary stories behind them. Here are a few examples from your local supermarket, take-away food shop or hamburger bar.


This word for small, thin, brittle slices of fried potato, eaten cold, did not appear in print until the 1920s. In the USA, the preferred term is chips. What some of us call chips are known as fries in the USA.

The original word in Old English was cirps, cyrps and it meant curly. Later, in Middle English, crispen meant to curl. Even in modern times, crisping tongs and a crisping iron were used for curling one's hair. The meaning of brittle wasn’t used until the early 1500s. The snow which good King Wenceslas looked out upon, in the carol, was 'deep and crisp and even', so crisp did not mean curly in that line. It probably meant firm but crunchy underfoot.

The patron saint of shoemakers, St Crispin, shares his name with other people who had curly hair and were nicknamed Crispus.


The people of Hamburg made a spiced, minced beef dish which was introduced to the USA by German immigrants. It was known as hamburg steak, which eventually became just hamburger. It has nothing to do with ham, so when you think about it, cheeseburger is something of an impossibility, because there isn’t a town called Cheeseburg.
Hamburger as a minced beef patty did not appear in print until about 1884 in the USA. Prior to that in Britain, in 1861, Mrs Beeton had published her recipe for Beef Rissoles. The ingredients were very finely minced cold roast beef, breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, 'a few chopped savoury herbs', minced lemon peel, and eggs. Lemon peel? Aha, so that's why a gourmet cook taught me 40 years ago to add a dash of marmalade to my hamburger mix.


This word was borrowed 800 years ago from French laitues. Its origin is in the Latin latitus which means milky. The vegetable was so called because of its thick, white juice. We don’t seem to find much of that in modern lettuces.

In his Historie of Plants, 1597, John Gerard wrote:
Lettuce cooleth the heat of the Stomacke, called the heart-burning; and helpeth it when it is troubled with choler [bile]; it quencheth thirste and causeth sleepe...

...being taken before meat it doth many times stir up appetite; and eaten after supper it keepeth away drunkennesse which cometh by the wine; and that is by reason that it staieth the vapours from rising up into the head.

260 years later, Mrs Beeton also mentioned that lettuce has a 'soothing and cooling influence on the system'.


When margarine was invented in the 1800s, it was seen to have a pearl-like appearance. Margaric, from the Greek margaron, means pearl-like. Here’s a food item which was given a name from what it looked like, rather than what it contained. That's just as well, when you realise that the first experimental margarine was made from beef fat, milk, water and finely chopped cow’s udder. Fancy some udderine in your sandwich?


Here's a novelty: The onion shares something with margarine—it was named after its resemblance to a pearl. In the 1300s, the French word oignon was borrowed. This word came from Latin unionem, which had several meanings. One meaning was ‘a large pearl’.

John Gerard listed some very interesting uses for onions:

The juice of Onions snuffed up into the nose, purgeth the head, and draweth forth raw flegmaticke humors...

...Stamped with Salt, Rue, and Honey, and so applied, they are good against the bite of a mad Dog.

...The juice anointed upon a pild [balding] or bald head in the Sun, bringeth the Haire againe, very speedily.

So next time you buy a hamburger, ask for extra onion, take it home, and you can make good use of it, eh?

© Copyright 2004, 2007, 2011 Brian Barratt


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