Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

What's on my table

I'm multi-tasking today, writing a blog post while digesting. While it's true that given the amount I eat in general, it's fair to say I'm always digesting, I'm working extra hard at digesting today because, of course, it's Thanksgiving. So I thought I'd tell you a little story about the foods on my Thanksgiving table, and how they came to be called what they are.

Turkey: Thanksgiving is a magical day for me in that it's the one day a year when I actively like Turkey. I promise you, by Saturday that bag-o'-bird sitting in my fridge is going to have ceased being food entirely. Especially because my husband will likely have eaten it all. But  I digress as usual. So turkey is named after the country Turkey. Quite by accident... they actually come from the Americas, but were brought back to Spain by Cortes. How the English came to believe that turkeys came from Turkey is unknown, but they sure were surprised to find them in North America.
Incidentally, the French, Germans, and others all thought the critters came from India.
Incidentally, wild turkeys of the sort that the pilgrims would have nommed on look and taste almost nothing like their domesticated kin.
Incidentally, President Bartlett wishes to inform you that the president does NOT actually have the power to pardon a turkey.

Potatoes: In my family, we often call them praties, from the plural for the Irish word for potato, prata. I think it's so neat to have a family in which wisps of a dying language still surface. At any rate, spuds also come from the new world and the word potato comes to us by way of the Spanish word patata, which comes from the Caribbean word batata, for sweet potato. How sweet potatoes and potatoes came to share a name is a mystery to me... they look alike on the outside by nature of their both being roots but seriously? Potatoes are about as much like sweet potatoes as they are like turnips.
Incidentally, Bill Bryson tells us that the word spud is related to the word spade, because that's what one digs spuds out of the ground with. 

Pork: Sure, not everybody associates piggies with turkey day, but Grandma B had a lovely ham today that makes me want to tell you that the word pork comes from Latin by way of French. Before the Norman conquest, "meat" words and "animal" words were the same, so that the Old English word picg referred both to the food and the lovable barnyard friend. Do you suppose it's somehow a reflection of our society that we rename our animals once they become food? 
Pumpkin: From pompions, from an old French word for melon. Much like potatoes and sweet potatoes, the similarities between melons and pumpkins are scant.
Corn: Two kinds of corn on the table this year - Grandma made the traditional creamed corn, then this crazy creamed corn made from corn that she and Grandpa had dried and then rehydrated.  Yes, I ate Thanksgiving at the Little House on the Prairie. To English settlers, the word corn referred to any kind of grain; in fact, in England, corn still refers to any kind of grain. Over there, the yellow stuff is called maize, from the Spanish maize, which comes from a West Indian Taino word, mahiz. In England, that noxious sweet stuff is called high-fructose maize syrup. 
On a tangential note, they're trying to rename high fructose corn syrup to corn sugar, which certainly does sound less unholy. Also, have you noticed that some things that contain sugar claim to contain evaporated cane juice crystals? Tricky, tricky.
Stuffing/Dressing: I learned today that the mixture of wet bread and spices is only called stuffing if it has been shoved up a dead bird's ass. If it has not been in anybody's ass, it's called dressing. 

Info for this post from 
Made In America by Bill Bryson
Online Etymology Dictionary

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