I’m delighted to be hosting today’s stop on the language safari blog tour for LITERALLY: Amazing words and Where They Come From by Patrick Skipworth, illustrated by Nicholas Stevenson, published by What On Earth Books. LITERALLY is an amazing collection of some of our most commonly used words and shares the history behind them. Prepare to be astounded as you discover more about one of our most precious commodities, learning not just about the origins of words but also about how their meanings have changed and how far they have travelled. Accompanied by vibrant and humourous illustrations, this is a wonderful book to share and enjoy again and again.
Today I’m sharing a guest post from author Patrick Skipworth, who studied Classics and Linguistics in London and the Netherlands, connecting the dots between ancient cultures, their histories, and their languages. Welcome to the blog Patrick!
Language Safari part 3: Language on a plate: food words from around the world
In the guest posts on the LITERALLY Blog tour I’ll be taking a closer look at three familiar areas of English vocabulary to reveal some of the surprises hidden in our words.
One of my favourite hobbies is cooking. Ever since I was very little I’ve enjoyed trying new foods, and now as an adult I love experimenting in the kitchen. Things sometimes don’t turn out as planned, but that’s half the fun. Food also provides an opportunity to combine one passion with another – words! Words for the vegetables, herbs, spices and animal products we use to make our dinners are a treasure trove for etymologists, with connections spanning thousands of years and crossing the world. The easy access we have today to globally imported foods in every supermarket or high street means we get to discover new words all the time.
Even familiar food words can have distant origins: pepper and sugar, for example, have their roots in Sanskrit from ancient India, and tea comes from Chinese (ch’a). Or take the humble potato. This ubiquitous feature of Sunday lunch in the UK was originally introduced to European stomachs after it was brought back from South America by Spanish conquistadors. The Inca who ruled the area around what is now Peru were huge fans. But, as with many words, unpacking the potato reveals a more complex journey into English. Long before its recent resurgence in trendy recipes, the sweet potato was the original ‘potato’ for English speakers. It took its name from batata, probably its name in Taíno but certainly a language from the Caribbean. The arrival of the less-sweet potato from South America saw it eventually take over as arguably the most loved root vegetable. Elsewhere the story is just as complicated: compare French pomme de terre (‘potato’, literally ‘apple of the earth’ – also see Dutch aardappel) with the more familiar looking patate douce (sweet potato), or, even more telling, Spanish patata (‘potato’) and batata (‘sweet potato’).
Through the various forms and changes around this single word we can identify a period of history that saw invaders and colonists taking two plants from the Americas back to Europe and causing linguistic mayhem. These words reveal historical connections around trade and colonialism that have shaped a significant part of societies today. Often these connections are actually right in front of us, such as for the word peach which comes ultimately from ‘Persia’, through which this fruit once made the long journey from China to Europe. A less common sight, the Roman snail (or escargot) was introduced across Europe by the Romans who had a taste for the slimy molluscs which has been passed down to French cuisine today. Red herrings abound though (French fries originate in Belgium for example), so any etymologist always has to stay on their toes. Next time you have your dinner, take a closer look at the words on your plate – you might discover some amazing stories.
Follow Patrick on Twitter @PSkipworth and Nicholas @xonicholasxo.
With thanks to What On Earth Books for inviting me to participate in this blog tour! Don’t forget to check out the rest of the tour: