Thanksgiving is a delicious time of year to nibble on a spicy, meaty, juicy honey of a topic that I know you’ll savor and relish. As a devout Foodist, I’m pleased to serve you a bountiful banquet of culinary word origins.
Both our food and our language are peppered with salt. The ancients knew that salt was essential to a good diet, and centuries before artificial refrigeration, it was the only chemical that could preserve meat. Thus, a portion of the wages paid to Roman soldiers was “salt money,” with which to buy salt, derived from the Latin, sal. This stipend came to be called a salarium, from which we acquire the word salary. A loyal and effective soldier was quite literally worth his salt.
Salt seasons not only the word salary, but also the words salad, salsa, sausage, and salami. You don’t have to take my etymological explanations with a grain of salt. That is, you don’t need to sprinkle salt on my word stories to find them palatable.
If you know where the Big Apple is, why don’t you know where the Minneapolis? — which raises the question “Whence cometh the phrase Big Apple, referring to New York City?”
The first print citation shows up in 1921 in a regular racing column in the New York Morning Telegraph by one John FitzGerald, in which he used big apple to refer to the race tracks of New York. By 1924, FitzGerald had broadened the phrase to identify the city itself: “The Big Apple, the dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred. There’s only one Big Apple. That’s New York.” The columnist wrote that he had first heard the phrase from two Black stable hands in New Orleans in 1920, for whom the big apple was their name for the New York racetracks — the big time, “the goal of every aspiring jockey and trainer.”
The cakewalk was originally a 19th-century entertainment invented by African Americans in the antebellum South. It was intended to satirize the stiff ballroom promenades of White plantation owners, who favored the rigidly formal dances of European high society. Cakewalking slaves lampooned these stuffy moves by accentuating their high kicks, bows, and imaginary hat doffings, mixing the cartoonish gestures together with traditional African steps. The most elegant and inventive contestants would receive a piece of cake, a prize that became the dance’s familiar name. Doesn’t that just take the cake?
Close cousin to cake is pie. In days of yore, housewives often needed to scrimp, even on essentials. Whenever wheat was in short supply, the bottom crust of pies was made with rye meal. Wheat was used only for the upper crust. Soon upper crust entered everyday speech to mean “the socially select.” Eating humble pie has nothing etymologically to do with the word humble, “lowly.” The dish was really umble pie, a pie stuffed with the chopped or minced part of an animal’s “pluck” — the heart, lungs, liver, and other innards — especially of a deer. While the lord of the manor and the upper crust feasted on a delectable haunch of venison, the gamekeeper and other servants had to settle for edible viscera. Another member of the cake and pie family is bread. Companion derives from the Latin com, “together,” and panis, “bread.” You and I are companions who together break the bread of language. Breaking bread was an important ritual of welcome and hospitality. Hence, the word company.
So here’s a toast to all those flavorful metaphors that add spice to our English language. Does that use of toast relate etymologically to the familiar slice of heated bread? In a word, yes. In the days of Queen Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare, it was common practice to dip a piece of spiced toast into the bottom of one’s tankard of ale or glass of sack (a bitter sherry) to improve the flavor and remove the impurities. The libation itself thus became “a toast,” as did the gesture of drinking to another’s health.
I offer a toast to you, my verbivorous readers: “Here’s champagne to our real friends, and real pain to our sham friends!” Thank you for being real friends of our glorious, uproarious, victorious, courageous, outrageous, contagious, stupendous, tremendous, end-over-endous English language!
On Saturday, Nov. 19, at the Hillcrest-Mission Hills Library, starting at 2:30 p.m., I’ll be presenting “An Afternoon of Language & Laughter.” Admission is free. I’d love to meet you there.
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