ReviewsEatymologies is the perfect finale to Jaine’s culinary omnium-gatherum. While impressively (sometimes impenetrably) scholarly, the American philologist William Sayers is also quirky (a chapter is devoted to Zola’s repulsion at “the pestilential stench” of certain cheeses) and irreverent. His pot-shots at the Oxford English Dictionary reach a climax in the demolition of its proposed etymology for “thivel” (a north British term for pot-stirrer). After accusing the OED of “smug editorialising”, he bluntly concludes: “Here the dictionary is in error.”
Eatymologies will provide an authoritative source for disputes among the gastronomically obsessed. As the book’s cover blurb (surely penned by Jaine) points out, “food enthusiasts … spend much time recounting how a dish got its name, but often they will be peddling nonsense”. Sayers puts us right on the origin of terms as varied as bun, mackerel (“In Latin, macula meant ‘spot’… maculatus ‘full of spots, spotted, speckled’ ”) and chitterlings (a “euphemism, apparently having originated as ‘kettle-boiled sausages’ ”).
Chris Hirst, The Independent
To read the various etymological essays in Sayers’s richly researched Eatymologies is to see how much of the story of food is missing when we neglect the history of language. For anyone seeking after the true origins of a particular food or dish, the history of “the names of things” may be one of the more fruitful research methods. It can tell us not just how a particular food was classified, but how it related to other foods and cooking techniques. For example, language tells us that the grill has been a constant in English-speaking life since Roman times – it comes from the Latin craticulum, meaning lattice-shaped utensil – whereas other, once-related, technologies have died out along with the words that described them. Do any cooks now speak of andirons, let alone cobbards (a kind of spit-holder)?
Another virtue of etymology as an approach is that it illuminates the complexity of how people responded to food in the past. Consider the chowder. Sayers carefully unpicks the way that this word functions as a “hybrid construct” that manages to combine three concepts in one. “Chow” alludes to mastication (to chaw and to chow were variants on chewing), yet the word as a whole also echoes the two French words chaudière, meaning kettle, and chaudumée or fish soup. This has a kind of crossword brilliance. A single word can stand for the vessel in which the dish is cooked, the dish itself, and how it is eaten. The only flaw is that, as Sayers notes, “chowder is not especially chewy”.
Bee Wilson, Times Literary Supplement