The Surprising Origins of 10 Common Food Words & Phrases

published Nov 6, 2014
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(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

That sandwich you’re eating is more than just bread and meat, and when you call someone a “couch potato” it goes beyond that person being lazy. If you’re interested in where your food comes from, it might also interest you to know the actual origins of the words we use to describe it. I found the stories behind 10 words and phrases especially interesting or enlightening.

(Image credit: Etsy)

Food-Related Words

Ketchup: As the Online Etymology Dictionary explains, the word ketchup is thought to come from the Chinese word koechiap, which means “brine of fish.” Originally ketchup was a more general word for spiced sauces, including fish sauce. “Tomato ketchup” emerged around 1800.

Cocktail: There are many ideas of where the word “cocktail” got its origin, but my personal favorite story is based in New Orleans. Apparently an apothecary named Peychaud (as in the bitters) made a mixed drink with brandy in a French eggcup. The drink was called a coquetier, or the French word for eggcup. This word was shortened to “cocktay” and eventually turned into cocktail.

Sandwich: The origin of the word sandwich might be the most well-known food word etymology. The story goes that John Montagu, or the Earl Sandwich, liked eating cold cuts between two slices of bread. The name for this creation just stuck around.

French fries: Even though french fries undoubtedly originated in Belgium, the deep-fried potato sticks were dubbed “french fries” in England in 1856. It is thought that the word “french” is actually not associated with the country, and more with the way the fries are cut.

Biscuit: The word for biscuit means “twice cooked” in old French (12th century).

Chickpea: The word “chickpea” can be traced back to the Latin “cicer.” My instructor at culinary school informed me that Cicero, the author, was often referred to as “little chickpea” because of his height.

Carnival: The word “carnival” has an interesting word history, basically involving the ideas of festivity and meat. In Latin “caro” means flesh and “levare” or lighten or remove.

Food Phrases

Couch potato: In this great interview with Bon Appétit, the creator of the phrase “couch potato,” Tom Iacino, says he came up with it on a whim when referring to his friend who liked lazying around on the couch. Iacino’s friend Bob was a cartoonist who drew the image and thus made the phrase popular.

Apple of my eye: Apparently the pupil of the eye was thought to be solid like an apple, so it was actually a literal phrase describing the pupil. The phrase appears in the Bible in Deuteronomy : “…[H]e kept him as the apple of his eye.”

A piece of cake: According to Word Detective, the phrase “a piece of cake” may refer to a “cakewalk,” a contest in the earlier 19th century when African-American couples competed to see who had the most graceful stroll. The prize? A cake!

Have any other food word stories to add?