Thursday, 23 October 2008

De Factoid the Twelfth: Ginspiration

This De Factoid strays from food to once again address the social history of drink, and since De Factoid the Fifth discussed the origin(s) of the word cocktail, this De Factoid shall look at the hidden history of one of the oldest, and best: the Martini.

For those who don’t know, a Martini Cocktail is traditionally made with a good, neat (i.e. no ice or mixers) English gin and a small wash of French or Italian vermouth (another spirit), stirred in an ice shaker and strained into a chilled martini glass over a couple of olives. It has become popular in recent years for vodka to replace gin (as a vodka martini) as the main spirit, but the gin-based drink is the original. One can usually tell the age of a cocktail (i.e. the time of its invention) by the contents from which it is made. Purely spirit based drinks are the oldest (of which brandy, gin and whisky are the oldest set – circa 1800’s – with vodka coming across from Russia much later: after the October Revolution in 1917, when Smirnoff moved outside the country and licensed production to America in 1933) with mixers i.e. non-alcoholic fruit-juices to mix with, coming much later. The martini glass (shaped like the letter ‘Y’) is likely to have been named after the drink (in a fashion that named the short glass as an ‘old fashioned’ – after the venerable whisky cocktail of the same name), and the drink is likely to have been named after the vermouth produced by Martini & Rossi in Italy. To order a ‘dry’ martini at a bar is a throw-back from an older tradition when the only martini spirit produced – martini rosso, ‘red martini’ – was very sweet. To request a ‘dry’ martini was to ask for less sweet vermouth, but was no longer required after the introduction of the less-sweet martini bianco, ‘white martini’ in 1910 (with similar products subsiquently becoming available in France). It is said that Winston Churchill – British Prime Minister during the Second World War – enjoyed his Martini Cocktails so dry that it was enough to pour his gin while looking towards France (where a popular Vermouth was produced). James Bond’s martini (the famous “shaken not stirred/shhterd”) was a mixture – according to Flemming, the author – of three measures Gordon’s gin, one measure of vodka and half a measure of Kina Lillet (a bitter, quinine filled wine-based drink) shaken until cold and served with a slice of lemon – but this seems to have been forgotten in recent films. Quinine (from the Peruvian word kina, ‘tree bark’ – first brought back to Europe by the Jesuits) is very useful for keeping the disease malaria at bay, and was dissolved in water to make ‘tonic’ water. Gin was added to the tonic water to make it more palatable for colonial Brits and the G&T was born.

Gin as a word derives from the Dutch drink jenever/ genever, a grain spirit flavoured with juniper berries (from where the Dutch drink gets its name: the French for juniper is genévrier) which was thought to have been first introduced to the mouths (and livers) of Englishmen during wars with Holland when soldiers were given Dutch courage before battle. The popularity of the drink in England (and a large stock of grain too poor in quality for brewing into beer) led to the government approval for unlicensed gin production and the establishment of gin bars when the spirit became cheaper than beer. William Hogarth’s famous engraving Gin Lane provides a (somewhat over the top) look at how this affected the working classes and what led to the drink’s nickname Mother’s Ruin (though I think it probably ruined the mothers and children in equal measure).

Vermouth – the other ingredient in the martini – comes from the French name for the drink, vermout, which in all likelihood from the German word wermut, seen earlier in German as wermuth (remember the German ‘v’ is pronounced ‘w’) – related to the English (and Germanic) name for the proverbially bitter plant wormwood (‘proverbially’ i.e. ‘widely known or spoken of, from Latin proverbium: pro, ‘for’ – think ‘pros and cons’ + verbum, ‘word’ – hence ‘a set of words put forth’). Though the origin of wormwood’s Germanic name is ultimately of unknown origin, one can assume that the second ‘w’ in wormwood is a corruption of the ‘m’ in the Old German wermuth. If that is true, then the traditional use of the extract as a means of removing worms (causing stomach irritation and vomiting) may suggest it to be a kenning of ‘something that expels worms from the mouth’ (mouth from Old English mūþ = muth). A kenning is the Anglo-Saxon poetic version of a metaphor (see De Factoid the Eleventh), and describes something unknown by combining two known elements (e.g. whalepath, ‘sea’; skycandle, ‘sun’) so could quite easily have been applied to describe the proverbial vomit-inducer. Vomit is ultimately a Latin word (though is linked to Greek, emeîn: hence something vomit-inducing having emetic properties). A good northern-English equivalent is the word spew (from Anglo-Saxon), where the southern equivalent chunder (spreading northward, if you will, through the Universities) is thought to come from the practice of shouting the warning “watch under!” when vomiting over the side of a ship. Nice…

Letter interchanges (that is, the swapping over of letters) such as wermut becoming vermout are common, especially when the letters are pronounced differently in one country to how they sound across a border. Another such example is the change between p/v/f that gives us Latin pater, German, vater and English, father as we go from the Mediterranean to northern Europe. The Romans would not have to worry about a w/v interchange though, as the letter ‘W’ was an English invention (albeit with a lot of help). The letter ‘V’ in the Roman alphabet (that is, the alphabet you are now reading – give or take a few letters – though the word alphabet come from the first two letters in the Greek alphabet: A/α ‘alpha’ + B/ β ‘beta’) derived ultimately from the letter ‘Y’ (with the bottom chopped off), a Phoenician symbol from the Semitic alphabet (Semitic i.e. Jewish, is a cultural term which derives from ‘the descendents of Shem’ in the Bible) and could stand as either the vowel ‘u’ or the consonant ‘v’ for a Roman writer (hence why one might sometimes see ‘v’s written in the place of ‘u’s in words written in capital letters on classically styled BVILDINGS and why in a Latin manuscript describing a baby, the child cried ‘va va va’). ‘W’ was first written down in the 7th century (601-700 AD) by Anglo-Saxon scribes to represent the longer ‘oo’ sound of putting two U’s together which the standard Roman alphabet did not provide: hence ‘double-u’. This was not immediately accepted across Britain though, but gained in popularity after the Norman Conquest (post-1066) when it began to more formally replace the letter Ƿ (the runic letter ‘wynn’), which had been brought over from Germanic northern Europe when the Saxons first landed on the island. Other runic letters (rune from Old Norse rún, ‘secret’, due to the mystical use of the language) that have fallen out of the language, include two(/four) other ways of writing ‘th’ – lower-case: ð; capital: Ð called ‘eth’ (representing the un-aspirated/ ‘voiceless’ ‘th’ in the word ‘Eth’) and lower case: þ; capital: Þ called ‘thorn’ (the aspirated ‘th’ of the word the), from where we get (through the progressive corruption of Þe, ‘the’) the ‘ye’ word that often turns up on black and white tourist trinket shop signs as ‘Ye Olde etc’.

Aspiration, for those interested, is the technical term for the sharp burst of air given out with certain words (hold your hand near your mouth and say ‘eth’ and ‘the’: the second aspirated word should hit you with a sharper air burst), but little of this would have matter to a Roman or a Saxon had they enough of the drink which derives its name from wormwood’s Latin botanical label (Artemisia absinthium): the emetic, mind-corrupting, Absinthe.

Absinthe (Absinth in central Europe) is a type of pastis – a clear, aniseed flavoured spirit (traditionally beetroot alcohol in France, now more often grape) that goes cloudy in water. The word derives from this idea of ‘mixture’ and is linked to the Italian word pasticcio, ‘pie’ and Old French pastiz from where we get ‘pastry’ and ‘pasty’ (see De Factoid the Ninth for further explanation) and the ‘mixture’ word pastiche. Other examples of pastis include Ouzo from Greece, Raki from Turkey, Italian Sambuca, Arak from Lebanon and Mastika from Bulgaria – to name a few. Absinthe gets its name from the infusion of wormwood as one of its ingredients which can, if ingested in large enough amounts, lead to wild hallucinations (a popular one being a vision of a beautiful green fairy which, one imagines, was part of the appeal) and eventual poisoning (which led to its banning in most European countries by 1915). The main French manufacturer continued to produce absinthe without the wormwood under his own name, creating the famous French pastis Pernod. Britain never banned Absinthe as it was never really popular, but then again we were probably too drunk on gin to try…

De Factoid the Thirteenth: coming soon.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

De Factoid the Eleventh: the fruits (and vegetables) of labour...

On the average trip around a supermarket, farmers’ fair or greengrocers, one might not consider too deeply the different fruits and vegetables on display – or their countries of origin. When biting into an apple at lunch time or pretending to eat sprouts at Christmas, history is usually a subject left neglected. But it shouldn’t be. The grocery section of an average shop is a secret back-catalogue of trade, conquest, empire and occupation. This De Factoid considers a few.

The Nativity:

Nativity is a useful word to begin this section as one deals first with the truly native edibles of Britain. Both nativity and native are linked to the word nation (from whence we also get national, nationalists, nationality and nationalize) from Latin nātiōn(n-): which refers (as one may have gathered) to ‘breed’, ‘stock’ and the matter of ‘race’; further linking to the process of ‘birth’ with the word-element nat- giving English the word natal (‘birth’ – think: ‘post-natal depression’), the new-born term, neonate, ‘new birth’ and the Nativity Scene in the story of the birth of Christ. Race as a word carries three meanings (though two are now more prominent). Race in the sense of ‘running a race’ comes from Germanic origins (northern Europe) and referred originally to the rushing movement of running water. It is a fair assumption that the word was introduced to England from Scandinavia, and worked its way south from the north of the country (which is why it is pronounced with the northern short ‘a’ sound, reading ‘reis’ as oppose to the long southern ‘raas’) at a time when ‘race’ (as in ‘breed’) was a point of conflict with Viking invaders. The meaning of race now less often used is of the name of the root-piece of the spice ginger, where race comes ultimately from the Latin rādīce-/ radix (meaning ‘root’) from where we get the vegetable name radish (itself introduced to British plates and palates in the 14th century by the French). This may give us the origin of the collective noun race in the sense of a ‘breed’: in people being metaphorically ‘rooted’ in the same place (and indeed wine-buffs are known to talk of a ‘race’ of wine in reference to the flavouring characteristics of the soil). The fruits and vegetables we now enjoy are a process of the birth of nationhood, each flavouring our natives and native soil as they are conquered and in turn conquer.

Think of a fruit or vegetable that you consider typically British. If you suggested ‘apple’ or ‘strawberry’; ‘sprouts’, ‘tomato’, ‘carrot’ or ‘peas’; ‘leaks’, ‘onions’, ‘pear’, ‘plum’, ‘parsnip’ or ‘potato’ you would (along with a vast list of others) be quite wrong. Those indigenous (i.e. ‘native’, from Latin indigena, ‘native’ – corresponding to Greek -genēs from where we get genus and genital) fruits and veggies are but few: Blackberry, Blackcurrant, Blueberry, Broad beans, Crab Apple (those who said ‘apple’ get half marks), Raspberry, Redcurrant and Samphire. England was good for berries – an Anglo-Saxon word: beri(g)e – though had few enough that we could differentiate them by little more than colour. That is not to say that the names of the plants are ‘native’ though: raspberry may relate to the ‘scratchy’ hooks on its skin – think French rasper, ‘scratch’ suggesting the French may have given us the name post-1066, or ealier via monks from Anglo-Latin raspeium; current is French (ultimately from Latin); apple is Old-English (just about: see De Factoid the Fourth), but crab (apple) probably comes from Scandinavia again in skrabba, ‘wild apple’. Samphire comes from French, (herb de) Saint Pierre, ‘St. Peter’s Herb’.

So to take the list of wrong answers from above, we shall explore three: the apple, carrot and potato – considering where they come from, and who first brought them to Britain:

The Apple was introduced to Britain during the Roman period (AD 43-410) from the warmer climates of the Mediterranean, ultimately coming from further east. Crab-Apples were already native to Britain and northern-Europe, but with Rome came the sweet fruit that replaced the bitter crab-apple as a mainstay fruit. The apple has had quite a history in literature and myth and feature in Norse legends (where the Goddess Iðunn provides apples to the gods to give them eternal youth) and Greek myth (where a similar life giving apple was found in The Garden of the Hesperides). Later Christian tradition of the apple as the ‘forbidden fruit’ (which according to the Book of Genesis in the Bible – also from Greek: genēs – was eaten by Adam and Eve against God’s will thereby leading to the fall of man and his banishment from paradise) was likely to have been borrowed from Greek tradition by Renaissance painters. The ‘forbidden fruit’ is never claimed to be an apple in the Bible: the Greek for apple, melon (from where we get the name of the fruit melon) was also the word for fruit generally. It must be remembered that the English Bible (King James, Dewey Rhymes and others) came from the Latin translation (re-translated into Latin by Jerome in 382AD) of the Greek translation of the original works (though the Tyndale Bible comes straight from the Greek). That the Latin for ‘apple’ (singular, malus) and ‘evil’ (singular, malum: think malevolent) were so similar (and identical – mala – if talking about more than one), probably presented too artistic a flourish to pass up, and the un-named ‘forbidden fruit’ became the apple in the Christian eye. Apple of my eye as a phrase itself comes from a Bible translation, that of the Anglo-Saxon Bible (Deuteronomy 2:10 and Zechariah 2:8) where æppel mean ‘round’ or ‘ball’: hence something being the ‘apple’ of your eye being the centre or whole of ones vision. The word translate is Latin meaning to ‘carry across’. Its Greek cousin is metaphor.

The Carrot is another colourful example of change in translation: changing colour in its own ‘carrying across’ from Arabia to the Netherlands by European traders. The carrots of Holland are orange – a product of the minerals of Dutch soil – and were bred into prominence through their colourful patriotism to the House of Orange during the battles for Dutch independence against Spanish rule (1568-1648). In their desert-home of origin (thought to be modern day Afghanistan) the carrot – through a differing of base minerals in the soil – was purple. The purple carrot had made its way to England via the Romans, but the orange carrot came to England (and stayed) from Holland in the 17th Century, when William of Orange became King of England in 1689. The word carrot comes to English through Old French and Latin from Greek karōtón (which probably itself has an Arabic ‘root’).

Finally, the Potato: another ‘carrying across’. The word potato is from Spanish patata (now most readily recognized in Tapas bars) which itself comes from combining a Taino (the pre-Spanish colonisation natives of the Bahamas) word batata, ‘sweet potato’ and the Quechua (the official language of the Incas) word papa, ‘potato’ when the Spanish took control of most of South America. About a third of all food eaten today can be traced back to South America, including potatoes, the chilli and all types of peppers (see De Factoid the Eighth), the tomato, chocolate and tobacco (to name but a few). The potato was introduced into England by John Hawkins in 1563, only later being re-introduced by Sir Walter Raleigh (who is fabled to have introduced the veggie to Ireland). Hawkins is an interesting character in himself: another made famous (and infamous) for his ability to ‘carry across’. He was treasurer and eventual commander of the Royal Navy, helping to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588 (though that was, in fact, more down to the bad weather) and is widely acknowledged as the pioneer of the slave trade, as the first man to run the Triangular Trade (England to West-Africa; West-Africa to America; America to England) making a profit at every docking. Some scholars suggest he was also responsible for introducing tobacco to England (another piece accredited to Raleigh) since he mentions Ltobaccoj (meaning tobacco) in his 1564 journal. The Oxford English Dictionary also accredits his crew with the introduction of the word shark into English (possibly from the Mayan work xoc, ‘fish’ – spoken in Yucatan, Mexico) after they brought a specimen back for exhibition in London in 1569 – no doubt more marveled at than the sack of spuds. Spud as a name for potato is of unknown origin, though may be related to the digging instrument of the same name first quoted in the first English-Latin Dictionary: the Promptorium Parvulorum (1440).

Try saying that with a mouth full of veg...

De Factoid the Twelfth: coming soon

Monday, 13 October 2008

De Factoid the Tenth: “Blessed are the cheese-makers”

The title of this De Factoid comes from a line cribbed from Monty Python’s 1979 film comedy The Life of Brian (the result of the back-reaches of a crowd gathered to listen to Christ’s teachings mishearing “Blessed are the peacemakers...” – found in The New Testament, Book of Mathew, Chapter 5: Verse 9) and is, in some respects, quite true. Many of the methods of cheese production that formed the first batches of what are now viewed as ‘English’ cheeses were brought over by Norman (i.e. North French) monks, after the defeat of the English Saxon King Harold II (via, as legend would have us believe, a stray arrow to the eye) by William ‘the Conqueror’ of Normandy (or rather, more accurately, one of his many archers). But one somewhat jumps the gun – cheese was well matured before it reached our little island...

Cheese has been with us for a long time – the process probably developed alongside the domestication of milk giving animals at the end of the Stone-Age (otherwise known as the Neolithic period: from Greek, neos, ‘new’ and lithos, ‘stone’) beginning about 10,000 B.C. in the Middle-East, where animal skins and internal organs were often used as storage containers for liquids on desert trips. A proposed Proto-Indo-European root (see De Factoid the Ninth) for the word ‘cheese’, *kwat- is related to the process of ‘souring’ and suggests that the dairy product, like many of life’s culinary wonders, was probably an accident (for further acts of serendipity see De Factoid the Seventh on Port and Champagne). The process of cheese making could occur naturally if the rennet (made of little enzymes – biological factories – called rennin) in the stomach lining of an animal/drinking-flask were to come into contact with milk. Hot climate and the steady churning movement of a walking camel would probably also help the process a fair bit. It’s not ‘water to wine’, but back then ‘milk to cheese’ could well be viewed as an Act of God...

That said, the English cheese-tradition doesn’t come direct from the deserts of the Middle-East. The language we use to describe it is closer to home, and can be traced back to two differing – though occasionally linguistically-converging – European traditions.

The first, which might reasonably be called the ‘native’ method, lives on in products like ‘cottage cheese’ (the ‘cottage’ element of the name suggests the small-scale, homely origins of this type of cheese production): a mixture of lumpy curds (solidified/ soured pieces of milk – hence curdle – of unknown origin though plausibly linked to Gaelic/ Middle-Irish, gruth) and whey (the watery part of milk remaining after the curd has formed). Whey as a word comes from Old English, hwæg (the ‘g’ is pronounced like a ‘y’) and is related to other Germanic words like hui in Dutch and Middle-Low German huy / hoie. Churn is another Old English word – cyrin – meaning ‘butter-making machine’: hence ‘to churn up’. The point of relation between the Germanic whey and Celtic curd alerts one to the other social group to whom we owe our (or rather to whom the Continent owes its) cheese making tradition. The group who once ruled over both the Celtic Britons and the Germanic Europeans: the Romans.

Cheese, as a word, is the name for the product made by pressing curds together and originates somewhere in the swap-shop of language exchange between the tribes of northern Europe and their Roman rulers. The vast Germanic language groups and Rome both seemed to possess their own word(s) for cheese, which combined to create the word we have today. Latin, cāseus (which itself may ultimately have come across from the Middle-East in the Sanskrit word, kãsi) gave the world the words for cheese in several languages: Spanish, queso, Portuguese, queijo, Romanian caş and Welsh caws as the language of Roman soldiers was taken up and altered in the mouths and on the tongues of the native peoples of each Rome-ruled country. An earlier borrowing from Latin is thought to have produced the word *kasjus – a shared root for many of the northern-European (Germanic) languages – and is related to words like Old English/ Anglo-Saxon, ćēse; Old High-German, chāsi; Old Saxon, kāsi / k(i)ēsi and Modern German, käse. The English word cheese developed out of the northern Europeans’ take on this Roman word. The early Latin borrowing is related to Latin jūs (from where we get the word juice) and refers to the watery curds-and-whey cheese already discussed. Solid cheese had a different Latin name – formāticus i.e. ‘cheese made into a form’ (from the bowls – forma – in which the whey was pressed out) and replaced the word cāseus (and we can also assume it replaced the runny cheese type) in the Gallo-Roman region of the Empire (now more readily recognised as France), developing into the tradition the monks brought over to England after 1066. One still sees the remains of the word formāticus in French as fromage.

Not just created to provide the French with a different word to the majority of other Europeans, the Roman formāticus was developed (like black-pudding: see De Factoid the Third) so as to be easily transportable for the soldier on the go. Should they need to ‘cheese it’ from a hoard of enemies they’d be crackers to try and do it with a load of runny cheese. The phrase ‘cheese it’ i.e. ‘run away’ is thought to have developed as school-yard slang – probably as a more vigorous version of ‘beat it’ (i.e. ‘beat it so fast it turns to cheese [were ‘it’ a liquid]’). This may well be considered a cheesy joke. That phrase is related to the idea of a broad, forced smile (think: ‘cheesy grin’) from the photographers’ call: “say ‘cheese’!”. The word forces a closed mouth position with teeth showing (try saying it) – which is good for a picture. Though somewhat fallen out of common usage, ‘cheese it’ has gained some currency recently on the cartoon programme Futurama as one of Bender the Robot’s catch phrases.

Crackers, is an interesting word and carries with it several different meanings. The sense I used above – ‘they’d be crackers’, meaning ‘insane’ – is an alteration of an earlier phrase, brain-cracked (English language users still talk of ‘cracking under pressure’) and refers ultimately to the noise of something breaking, from Old English cracian, meaning ‘sound’. Other noises – particularly that of laughter – are related to the word: as is evident to anyone cracking-up after someone cracks a particularly cracking joke. Something fun being referred to as ‘good crack/ craic’ (the latter if you are in Ireland) also comes to mind. A cracker on which one might put cheese gets its name from the breaking noise, and crackling (the salted, cooked back-fat from a piece of pork – called ‘pork scratching’ in British pubs) again has sound in its name (that of it cooking). The American slang name for the drug crack cocaine (cocaine processed with ammonia or sodium bicarbonate i.e. ‘baking soda’) may well combine several of the above meanings: the crackling sound of the bicarbonate during heating (which removes the hydrochloride allowing the product to be smoked) and the ‘enjoyable’ experience (‘good craic’) combing with the drug’s other ‘street’ name, rock. High-flying ideas cooked-up during smoking such substances were referred to as crack-pipe dreams during early usage, which gave English the phrase ‘pipe-dream’ after a little clipping. The other pejorative (i.e. ‘derogatory’, ‘offensive’, ‘insulting’ from late Latin pējōrāre, ‘make worse’: hence French, pējor, ‘worse’) use of the word cracker comes from black communities in America in reference to racist white Americans. This most likely comes from a shortening of ‘whip-cracker’ in reference to the slave trade (though has older roots elsewhere in English) and has found currency, like ‘cheese it’, in American cartoons: this time in the frustrated words of South Park character, Chef. Chef, as a word, means (and is the origin of the word) ‘chief’ (a shortening of the French phrase chef de cuisine: ‘head of kitchen’). The English word – cook – comes from the Old English cōc, ‘preparer of food by boiling’ (pronounced with a long ‘oo’ sound, children!) – hence ‘cooking’ – and is related to the Latin word, coquus. French coqeure, (meaning ‘cook’) comes from here, as do the English words concoction and concoct (from Latin concoquere, ‘digest’, later ‘consider’, ‘reflect upon’ – see De Factoid the First): hence to ‘cook up a plan’. From coquus English is also granted its equivalent of the word for the edible ‘cracker’ – through Medieval Latin biscottus (meaning ‘twice cooked’: hence Italian biscotti bis, ‘twice’: think bisect, ‘cut in two’; the number of wheels on a bicycle or lenses in binoculars): the word is biscuit. Equally good with cheese, and not nearly as racist.

De Factoid the Eleventh: coming soon...

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

De Factoid the Ninth: Shut your PIE-hole...

In this De Factoid one addresses a subject close to every northern-Englishman’s heart – slicing across the social, cultural and linguistic history of the grandest and humblest of deep dishes: pie.

Pie has been with us for a long time. Archeologists (diggers of old things) discovered etchings of a pie-like dish on the walls of the tomb of King Ramesses II (who we know to have rather enjoyed his pepper from De Factoid the Eighth) which was likely to have consisted of honey, nuts and fruit wrapped in a primitive dough/pastry. Pastry, as a word, is French (from Old French, pastaierie) and is linked through late-Latin, pastāta (from where we get the name of the Italian mainstay: pasta) to the word paste – another substance originally made using flour and water – and also linked to the word pasty: the popular meat-pie-like dish popular in Cornwall, England. Pasty entered the English language as the Middle-English word paste(e) through Old French, pastée – a corruption of the Latin paste-word. The ‘paste’ element of the pasty is in the minced meat and vegetable filling, rather than the flour and water of the surrounding pastry. Back in France the word continued to evolve and from Old French pastée, Modern French was granted the similarly minced word, pâté.

The equivalent ‘native’ English word for the Old French, pastrydough – came from Old English dāg and is, from the point of view of language(s), even further reaching. The word is linked to the process of kneading (another Old English word, cnedan) the flour and water together to make the dough, and shares linguistic links across Northern Europe with most Proto-Germanic languages. Proto-Germanic (proto- from Ancient Greek, prôtos meaning ‘first’: think ‘prototype’) is the name given to one of the several off-shoots of language groups from which nearly all European and Asian languages are thought to originate (Proto-Germanic languages are German, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, Flemish, Frisian, Swedish and English – as well as many other languages now considered ‘dead’). The hypothesized ‘central’ language has been labelled Indo-European and was thought to have been brought to Europe and Asia by the first tribes of Homo sapiens (the ancestors of modern man: Latin homo-, ‘man’ – think, ‘homosexual’ ; sapiens, ‘knowing’ – think, ‘sapient’) to arrive from the Middle-East/North-Africa, replacing the languages of Neanderthal man (an earlier sub species of humans, named after the German valley where remains were first discovered, ‘Neander Thal’ – Neander being the classicised German name ‘Neumann’ + thal, meaning ‘valley’) as well as the people – though Finnish (North Eastern Europe) and Basque (in Northern Spain/Southern France) are the exceptions, thought to have evolved from Neanderthal language elements, surviving due to the isolated nature of the regions. As a result of a shared language heritage, many words seem to echo across languages. ‘Dough’ is one such example, with Indo-European roots dhoigh-, dheigh-, dhigh, relating to the kneading, smearing and form/forming of clay. The root spirals across Europe and Asia giving us (amongst other things) dih (‘smear’) and dēhas (‘body’) in Sanskrit, relating to the word diz (‘mould’) used by Xenophon (another clever Greek person) combined with pairi (‘around’), when describing the walls around the desert gardens of Persian Kings. These gardens, as well as the word created to describe them, became an ever-lasting symbol when taken into the Greek Bible: parádeisos in Greek became paradise in English. The language hypothesized to have preceded Indo-European has rather ingeniously been dubbed, Proto-Indo-European, or PIE for short.

Pie is another word related to the mashing of languages and miscellaneous meats, but not as straightforwardly as one might think. When pie, as a word was first spoken in English, it wasn’t a pastry-surrounded lump of meat: it was a bird. In English bird names we still have the Magpie, though the ‘Mag-’ element (likely to be an abbreviation of ‘Margaret’) is from a later tradition of adding personal names to animals (similarly, Americans can still be heard talking of Jack-rabbits). The root of this pie in English is in the magpie’s Latin name, pica (relate to the Latin for woodpecker, picus). The adjective pied comes from the bird, originally referring to something with black and white elements (think piebald horses – the ‘bald’ bit refers to the white patches) before moving to mean ‘multi-colours’ (as in the multi-coloured robes of the ‘Pied Piper’). As well as its colouring, the magpie is noted for its kleptomanic (i.e. ‘thieving’: from Greek, kléptēs, ‘thief’ related to Gothic, hlifan, ‘steal’ – think ‘shoplifter’) gathering tendencies, often creating a jumble of different items in its nest. The pie we eat today is reasonably assumed to have taken its name from the nest arrangement, itself a jumbled assortment of ingredients. The meat or fish pie chewet has been similarly linked with French, chouette (‘jackdaw’ – another personal-named bird), and an alternative 16th century English name for the magpie, haggess, suggests a similar origin for the Scottish food-jumble, haggis.

Before this move, pies were referred to in writing as coffins/coffins: resembling their body-housing namesakes, with tall sides and a lid. These large coffins were often used as centre-pieces at Royal banquets and would conceal exotic birds and animals, or even people (I can only assume they were lightly baked). The nursery rhyme ‘Sing-a-song-of-sixpence’ is based on the practice. Jeffrey Hudson (1619-1682), a famous 17th century dwarf, was served up as a child in a cold pie to King Charles I and his Queen. Hudson climbed out of the pie clad in a miniature suite of armour and was later dubbed Lord Minimus, before going on to serve as the Queen’s trusted companion. He was twice kidnapped by pirates and fell from his high position as court-favourite to eating humble pie as a slave in Africa.

Humble-pie is the punch-line to a joke which long preceded Lord Minimus, based on word-play that might not be recognized now that the word umbles has fallen out of common usage. Umbles, as a word, came to England with William the Conqueror and his French lords and originates in Latin, lumulus, ‘loin’. ‘Umble pie’ was made from the heart, liver and other off-cuts of deer: eaten by huntsmen and servants while their lords ate venison (see: De Factoid the Fourth). Umble pie was thus associated with people of a more ‘humble’ position (‘humble’ comes from another Latin word, humilis, ‘low’, ‘slight’ from where we get humility and humiliate) and was probably helped toward the current association by the southern verbal tendency to drop the ‘h’. The lads of the Essex-born super-group ‘Humble Pie’ may have shared in this linguistic practice while painting the town red in the 1970’s. That colourful phrase is claimed to have originated with the paint brush practices of the ‘Mad Marquis’ Henry de la Poer Beresford in the great English pie town of Melton Mowbray. The town’s pork pie tradition arose as a by-product of its cheese industry when the whey from its famous stilton was discovered to make excellent pig-feed. The Marquis was supposed to have painted the town the aforementioned colour after getting pie-eyed (i.e. ‘drunk’, from the wide-eyed, blank expression likening to a pie-top) on too much booze. One thinks a nice pie might have done him some good…

De Factoid the Tenth: coming soon...

Friday, 3 October 2008

De Factoid the Eighth: Hindi an’ a Jones...

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 other meaning of ‘curry’ i.e. ‘to rub down with a comb’, ‘arrange’, ‘equip’ comes from the Old French verb conraier – ‘to prepare’, ‘to put in order’. To ‘curry a horse’ (a phrase which today usually only turns up in horror stories about back-door eateries in The Sun) carries (another word also coming from the French) the meaning – now usually only inside the horsey-set – of the rubbing down and dressing of horses: hence curry-combing. This is linked (by a slightly odd-route) to the phrase, to curry favour.

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.

When curry itself was brought back across the waters to England it yielded some interesting results. The once popular breakfast dish kedgeree (consisting of flaked smoked-haddock, boiled rice, eggs and butter) is as much an Englishman’s botched attempt at a curry as any: deriving from an Indian dish called khichdi in Hindi – once popular with the Mughals (whom the British deposed from the Indian seats of power, if not a seat at breakfast). Curry has had other royal connections – one was served at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (Coronation Chicken), which in turn was based on ‘Jubilee Chicken’: the dish of cold chicken, mayonnaise and curry powder created for the silver jubilee of King George V in 1935. The preserve ‘piccalilli’ seems to be another fair attempt at an English curry sauce and ‘devilled’ (i.e. spiced) eggs, kidneys etc. are another product of the influence of Indian food (and a fair indication of the Victorian temperament toward the ‘heathen’ – i.e. non-Christian – country). Heathen, interestingly, contains the word ‘heath’ (as in a hill) and refers to the barbarian practice of performing their rituals on hills outside the city proper (though it’s now tourists, not pagans, that gather at Heathrow). You may well encounter several other Indian words on your way to Heathrow airport so long, that is, as you’ve remembered to pack your shampoo, pyjamas and bangles; a cummerbund (a posh girdle-type belt for men); a pair of jodhpurs (riding trousers) for playing polo; a bandanna; a cot for the little one; your cashmere wooly jumper and any other general loot. And that’s just a few words from Hindi! Other Hindi words might crop-up if all is pukka (meaning ‘cooked’, ‘ripe’ and used in Southern England in a positive sense of ‘well’: think Jamie Oliver) or if you travel to a jungle, stay in a bungalow, or cross a border guarded by a sentry. You can thank the Urdu language if you get yourself a cushy job (from khushi, ‘soft’); if you act like a thug (from the Thagi: a collective of criminals who were fabled to have dressed as wandering priests and murder travellers) you may fall from favour you may be labelled a pariah (from Persian through the Tamil language). To name but a few! It is apparent that things to eat weren’t the only exports from India back to Blighty.

Blighty as a word comes (though the Army) from the Hindi, bilāyatī/ vilāyatī meaning ‘foreigner’. A similar naming trend occurred much earlier in the history of English when the Saxon tribes landed on the English east coast. The word for ‘foreigner’ in Anglo-Saxon is wealh and was used generally to refer to any native inhabitant (the Celtic Britons) who needed to be hacked through to make some living room. The largest concentration of these foreigners was named appropriately with the plural of the Anglo-Saxon wealh word – wealas: modern-day Wales (as well as the elements of Cornwall, and the wal- of the walnut, ‘foreign nut’). Welsh is an older language than English, as are Scots/Irish Gaelic, Cornish, Manx and Breton (in northern France): all the residues of Celtic languages pushed back to the north, south and west coasts by the invading Saxons. Another Indian word for ‘foreigner’ (ferengi) turns up more readily in Star Trek.

Trek is one of a few Afrikaans (South-African Dutch-English) words to work its way into mainstream English. Others that spring to mind are kommando (independence soldiers who fought against the British and from whence we get commando) and the quite-loaded word apartheid (literally ‘apart-ness’). Animal names such as meerkat (literally ‘lake cat’), springbok (a small deer/ tasty cocktail shooter); wildebeest (from Cape-Dutch: an Afrikaans forerunner) and aardvark (‘ant-eater’ to any Americans reading) are Dutch-English South-African imports to the language. The drink advocaat is another Anglo-Dutch word, originating with Dutch speakers in South-America and translating roughly as ‘egg-nog’. One says ‘roughly’ as egg-nog is not a direct translation, as advocaat was originally made, not with eggs, but with avocadoes (hence the name): only being replaced with eggs when avocadoes were discovered to be few in number back in the Netherlands. ‘Nog’ may well come from the name for the English wooden cup used for drinking the concoction (and used later to refer to ‘wooden’ heads), called a noggin. Other names for the English focus more on appearance and appetite. An Englishman in Australia might be called a Pomm or a Pohm, though which one is tricky to determine. The Englishman-as-Pomm may refer either to pomegranate (the red fruit) rhyming through Aussie-accent with immigrant or (which is more likely/amusing) refer to the colour into which the average Englishman turns in the sun (and lines up nicely with our Afrikaans nickname, rooinek – ‘red neck’). Pohm is more likely still as an acronym for (i.e. initials of) Property Of Her Majesty – reflecting that fact that Aussie, for all its charm now, used to be a British prison. Another food related name is found in limey: referring to Royal/ Merchant Navy sailors eating limes to ward off the vitamin deficiency scurvy (think stereotypical pirate “ye scurvy dog!”) and the title awarded to us by the French for our meat-eating tendencies: rosbif (‘roast-beef’) – which we return to the frogs, in kind.

De Factoid the Ninth: coming soon.