In De Factoid the Seventh, one mentioned in passing the origins of the ‘vindaloo’ curry in name, if not in location. The vindaloo is one of many examples of food birthed as a product of empire: a child of conquest and (if you will) a happy mixed marriage. But the British love affair with the curry is not a new one, and the courtship is mapped across several continents.
‘Curry’, as a word comes (as one would reasonably expect) from India – from the Tamil word kari and/or the Canarese word karil, from the southern districts of the country/ Sri Lanka (which may both be linked to the name of the traditional Indian cooking pot, the karahi – also spelt karai – in which the dish was made) and crops up in Europe and England with thanks to traders as early as the 17th century (though we know from De Factoid the Third that trade had been going on much earlier, when the chilli-pepper – amongst other less spicy things like Christianity – was introduced to India from South-America by Spanish and Portuguese traders a hundred years or so earlier). Dutch and Portuguese explorers wrote favourably of ‘carriel’ (from the Portuguese corruption of the Canarese word meaning ‘curry’), suggesting that Europeans were naturally inclined toward the spicy dish. Europe did already have a special idea of ‘spice’, with the word finding its origins in Latin, speciēs (initially in the sense of ‘visible appearance’, ‘specific kind’ from whence we get words like spectacles, special, specialist, specific and species) and the related late-Greek word eîdos, ‘merchandise’, ‘wares’: the singular of which idéā also meant ‘look’, ‘form’ or ‘kind’ (and entered Latin as idea: giving us the words idea, ideology, ideal), which later also comes to mean ‘goods’ and more specifically ‘groceries’ as is apparent in modern French for ‘grocer’ (when pronouncing the ‘c’ with an ‘s’ sound): épicier. ‘Grocer’ and ‘spicer’ are fundamentally the same word and both link back to the idea of trade, and buying up what one sees. Grocer as a word comes from the medieval Latin grossarius/ grossus (from where get gross and GDP – ‘gross domestic product’ i.e. the value of all goods and services produced in a country in one year). The grocer wasn’t just a man selling veggies, he was selling (and buying) everything in gross quantities: he was the medieval equivalent of the wholesaler. The Worshipful Company of Grocers (established 1180AD) is listed second in the Livery Companies (i.e. medieval trade-regulators) of the City of London, who traded in spices, gold, and other luxury goods from Byzantium (modern day Istanbul) and the Mediterranean. Also called the Guild of Pepperers through their very profitable trade in peppercorns, which was (until the introduction of the chilli) the primary method of spicing food (and hence why we call the latter and its less-spicy relations chilli peppers, despite being completely unrelated to the genus that yields Piper nigrum, ‘black pepper’). That Latin word, piper (from Sanskrit, pippali - the 'long pepper') spawned similar words across the continent with Old English, piper; German, pfeffar; Italin, pepe and Old French, peivre (modern French, poivre) and proved such good business generally that pepper corns were often used as payment of rental agreements (from where we get the legal phrase ‘peppercorn rent’: though now in relation to a small payment based on size, rather than worth), and to well-seasoned soldiers (who could also have their salary in salt – as discussed in De Factoid the Second). Perhaps it gave them some pep on the battlefield (a shortened Americanism of ‘pepper’ in the sense of ‘spicing things up’) or in the after-life if things didn't go to plan (black peppercorns were found lodged in the nostrils of the Egyptian King, Ramesses II: part of the mummification process performed shortly after his death in 1213 B.C. – i.e. 'Before Christ'). The majority of peppercorns in Europe came, by land, from India until sea-routes were established by the early trading empires of Portugal and the Netherlands. Trying to open up a sea-route westward to the country, Christopher Columbus unwittingly discovered the east coast of what is now the United States. Believing to have landed at his appropriate destination, he called the natives ‘Indians’. Chilli, as a word, comes from the Aztec name for the plant (of the same spelling), and gets imported into Spanish during their trade with (and later conquest of) South America. A similar process occurs with the later British East India Company: a shift from couriers (in the sense of ‘a servant/running messenger’ from Latin currere, ‘run’: hence the ‘current’ of a river) of Indian goods to conquerors and grocers by force – with the curry being but one of the things brought back home.
The phrase does not mean ‘to arrange favour’ as one might expect and is actually the result of mishearing the French medieval phrase ‘curryfavell’ (translating roughly as a ‘flatterer’) from the story Roman de Fauvel or ‘The Romance of Fauvel’. In the story, Fauvel is a donkey who deceives and corrupts the greedy leaders of the church and state and, as with the curry-combing of a horse, so too is Fauvel the donkey ‘curried’ as the rich and powerful humiliate themselves. The name Fauvel (or Favvel) is formed from ‘fau-vel’ (in English ‘veiled lie’), which in turn is made (in a very clever fashion) from the initial letters of a French version of the seven deadly sins: flaterie (flattery/pride), avarice (greed/gluttony), vilanie (wrath), variété (inconstancy), envie (envy), and lacheté (cowardice). The method is called an acrostic (from the Greek meaning ‘row or line of verse’) and is from where we get the word across.
De Factoid the Ninth: coming soon.