Tag Archive | etymology

The Language of Food

I just finished reading a Christmas present, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky. Dan Jurafsky is a linguistics professor at Stanford whose work I had previously read in a research context. The Language of Food is a delightful and highly readable exploration of the history and etymology of various foods. It was less linguisticky than I was expecting (computational analyses of online menu and restaurant review corpora and an introduction to front and back vowels notwithstanding), but this was not a disappointment because there was just so much to savor. Like recipes gleaned from almost every era in history, from a description of how to brew beer from 1800 BCE to Emily Dickinson’s recipe for “Cocoanut Cake”. If you’re someone who likes to discover the connections between words (and if you like to eat!), you’d probably love this book. You can get a taste for Jurafsky’s approach in this New York Times piece.

A few tidbits I found particularly interesting: I started The Language of Food right after finishing Ancillary Sword, in which the characters drink an alcoholic beverage called arrack. I thought Ann Leckie had made it up. So imagine my surprise when a mere 2 pages into Jurafsky’s book I encountered a reference to arrack, the liquor, which is very much of our world. I also learned that ketchup is originally Chinese (both the word and the condiment, though it might be a stretch to say that about the condiment). I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised; isn’t everything originally Chinese? (Aside: I used to think catsup was a general term and ketchup a brand name that had been genericized, though in retrospect this doesn’t make much sense.)

Jurafsky talks about the confusion over the bird we call the turkey. Though I knew the French word for turkey was dinde, I didn’t realize this was from d’Inde, meaning “from India”. And then when I read that Europeans mixed up the American turkey and the West African guinea fowl, it struck me that there had to be a connection to the fact that in French “guinea pig” is “cochon [pig] d’Inde”.

Jurafsky also devotes a chapter to sound symbolism and food names, specifically brand names. Sound symbolism is the idea that there is some inherent, possibly iconic, link between the forms of words and their meanings. The most commonly discussed pattern is the association of front vowels (like [i] in see, [ɪ] in thin) with smallness and back vowels (like [u] in moo, [o] in go) with bigness. I once went to a talk by the linguist and fieldworker Claire Bowern on this very topic in Australian languages. Coming back to food, Jurafsky found that names for ice creams (think rich, creamy, heavy) tended to have a lot of back vowels while names for crackers (think light and crisp) tended to have a lot of front vowels.

Anyway, just reflecting on this book is making me hungry, so I’ll stop there.

Good Balderdash Words

Balderdash is one of my favorite games. It works as follows: one player reads aloud an obscure word of English that nobody knows. All the other players make up a definition for this word and write it down on a scrap of paper. Meanwhile, the word reader writes down the true definition of the word. She then collects all the proposed definitions, slips in the real one, and reads them all aloud. Everyone votes on which definition they think is the real one. Players earn points if they guess the correct definition of the word or if other players vote for their invented definitions. Balderdash is sold as a board game, with cards listing rare English words, but it can be played with nothing more than a dictionary (the larger the better).

Balderdash is one of the funniest games I’ve ever played. There’s a fine line between a made-up definition that is amusing but still plausible and one that is completely outrageous. And sometimes the real definition is almost unbelievable. The hardest part of the game is probably reading all the proposed definitions aloud with a straight face when you know which one is real.

It’s very satisfying listening to other players take your utterly fictitious definition seriously, and it’s amazing to realize how many words of English (someone’s English, somewhere, sometime) you have never encountered before. In my experience, good Balderdash words tend to be of Germanic origin, as words with Greek or Latin roots can often be at least partially deciphered (consider haffle vs. xanthic) (okay, maybe most people don’t know that xantho– is a prefix from Greek meaning “yellow,” but I honestly think more 21st century speakers of American English know that than have ever heard the word haffle).

Anyway, the point of all this is that I learned two new words this past week that immediately struck me as being excellent Balderdash words.

Wapentake (n.) : a subdivision of certain shires or counties, esp in the Midlands and North of England, corresponding to the hundred in other shires

I stumbled upon this word by serendipity. I finished reading the YA fantasy novel Witchlanders (which is so, so good!) and went to learn more about the author, Lena Coakley. She has a fondness for the Brontës, so I looked them up on Wikipedia to remind myself of all the siblings in that family. There, I learned that the Brontës had lived in something called the West Riding of Yorkshire, which sounded so romantic I had to go look that up, whereupon I discovered the subsection “Ancient Divisions: Wapentakes.” It almost doesn’t look like a real English word, right?

The etymology of wapentake is pretty fascinating too. It originally comes from Old Norse and literally means “weapon take”. It might have referred to a sort of census by weaponry and/or a practice of voting by brandishing weapons. It’s interesting to think of dividing land into units according to a set number of available swords (that is, sword-wielding individuals). One could imagine sparsely populated areas having larger wapentakes and densely populated areas having smaller ones. I’m not sure that’s how it worked at all; I’m making this up. But it would be a good worldbuilding element, wouldn’t it?  

Spline (n.): a long, flexible strip of wood or the like, used in drawing curves

This word came up in Baayen’s Analyzing linguistic data: A practical introduction to statistics, a textbook I’m working through this summer (joy!). Specifically, it came up in the context of restricted cubic splines, which are functions that can be used to capture nonlinear relationships in a regression model while avoiding overfitting and its associated problems. Right. Basically, they’re functions for modeling curves, which is why they’re named after a physical tool used to draw curves.

Spline is an ideal Balderdash word because it looks perfectly English (it complies with English phonotactics, or rules about syllable structure and what sounds can appear next to each other) but I had never heard it before reading it in my statistics textbook. It looks like it could mean anything: a type of plant graft, a kind of fishing lure, a bird… Spline’s origin is given as East Anglian dialect, so, Germanic again.

Here, then, are two great Balderdash words! Only, now you know what they mean, which defeats the purpose of the game.