Words to Eat By

Written by Darin Cook


Five Foods and the Culinary History of the English Language

by Ina Lipkowitz


The name of a thing often helps to determine how it is perceived. Foods are no exception. When you see a slab of red meat wrapped in pastry on a plate, you probably know more of what to expect when told that it’s called Beef Wellington. The same can be said for Häagen-Dazs; it’s not obvious what it is, (in fact the name is made up, to sound Danish) but even non-Scandinavians know that it’s ice cream. A dish’s name itself informs, without need for further explanation.

In her book, Words to Eat By: Five Foods and the Culinary History of the English Language (St. Martin’s Press, 2011, $29.99), Ina Lipkowitz, a linguist instructor at MIT, claims that English is filled with a food vocabulary that harkens from other languages, especially from French and Italian, with their rich culinary history. Many words are adopted into the English lexicon without being translated, such as pâté, à la carte, and au jus. Gourmet food tends to have French or Italian names, giving the impression of being fancier and tastier, even if by association only. Osso buco is a luscious main course, but doesn’t sound as nearly as appetizing when translated from the Italian (as “bone with a hole” on account of the marrow hole at the centre of the cross-cut veal shank).

Words to Eat By focuses on five basic food words — milk, bread, apple, leek, and meat — one from each of the traditional nutrition pyramid groups.

Lipkowitz claims that milk has a schizophrenic complex: it is consumed by some cultures but not others; fed to children more than adults. It is perceived by many as a healthy drink (except for those who are lactose intolerant) because it starts out as the sole source of sustenance to jumpstart the lives of babies, but then at a certain age, some children progress to dairy products. Adults choose whether they continue consuming milk and its use is quite regional based on cultural upbringing. The word “milk” is derived from the Germanic “meolc” but the Italian “latte” comes from the Latin “lac” and elevates the stature of the product — a coffee shop latte is worth more than a warm cup of milk.

Names for bread can also paint an exotic picture. We are attracted to French baguettes, Italian ciabattas, Indian naan, Greek pitas, and Mexican tortillas. Our English word evolved from the rustic origins of the Germanic brot and brings to mind artisan loaves of baked, leavened bread made with grains, or perhaps the primary-coloured package of fluffy, sliced, white Wonder Bread.

The sweetness of fruit is believed to be the reason for its name from the Latin fruor, meaning “to have pleasure.” Lipkowitz writes that “fruit provides such an unsurpassable pleasure that its name evokes happiness. However much we may enjoy our eggplants, string beans, and rutabagas, they simply don’t give us the same effortless delight.” Most fruits hail from warm and sunny locations, so the English language has adopted many foreign names, to identify things like pomegranates and mangos. Apples, though, are indigenous to the United Kingdom and the word appel has barely changed in more than 1,500 years of existence from the Old English original, and apples are still the universal poster-child for all fruit.

Leeks were chosen for Lipkowitz’s discussion on vegetables because they are distinctly British, in contrast to most vegetables imported to England, whose names were stick to their country of origin, like broccoli and zucchini (Italian), tomato (Central American), and Brussels sprouts (Belgian). Leeks are part of the onion family and grow wild in England, leading Lipkowitz to a discussion about the fine line between eating what could be a wild-growing weed or a cultivated and delicately cooked vegetable. As with many wild herbs, the leek has been attributed with medicinal qualities and is associated with its Latin name, loch, a medicinal substance to cure a sore throat.

The meat industry has relied heavily on using names to remove the subject from its source. For starters, the word meat is used more often than flesh. Pig is an animal, pork is what we eat; the meat of a pig can also become prosciutto, pancetta, and pork chops to distance it further from its animal origins. Linguistic shifts throughout history were based on the conquest of one nation over another. Names of meat changed when William the Conqueror arrived forcefully in England in 1066. Cow, sheep, and swine (all Germanic names) become beef, mutton, and pork (from the French boeuf, mouton, and porc) when in edible form. Lipkowitz writes: “Although live beasts are called by their Old English names, they become French after they’ve been slaughtered, jointed, and roasted.”

The historical references and linguistic research in this book are extensive and impressive, giving a delicious picture of how language has shaped what we eat. The thymus glands of livestock are given the more palatable name of “sweetbreads” as an alternative to the offal they really are. Similarly, why would a restaurant put “goose liver” on a menu when foie gras is universally recognized? The meaning of food, and our perception of its taste, all starts with a name.


Darin Cook works and plays in Chatham-Kent and regularly contributes to eatdrink.

About the author

Darin Cook

Darin Cook is a freelance writer based out of Chatham. He keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants of London.