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Naming of Food


NAMING OF FOOD. Foods are named primarily according to their origins. Foods from the plant kingdom usually have the same name as the plant, such as carrot, potato, peas, and spinach. Sometimes the name of the food is from the fruit (the seed-bearing part of the plant), such as apple, from apple trees, and raspberry from raspberry bushes.

Food from animals usually has the same name as the animal: lamb, chicken, rabbit, quail, salmon, Dungeness crab, snails. The exceptions are words such as calf and veal or pig and pork or sheep and mutton, where the former word is of Anglo Saxon origin and the latter of French origin. A few remnants of Anglo-Saxon names remain, as in oxtail soup or pigs' feet. The names of animal parts when cooked and eaten often refer to the common anatomical names, such as wing, breast, or leg of birds and rib and tongue of mammals. However, most cuts of meat have their own special names: sirloin, strip steak, lamb chop. Bacon and ham denote that the meat is from a pig and that it is smoked. Innards like liver and kidneys are the same as the organ name. However, some interior parts have better-sounding food names, such as sweetbreads for pancreas, tripe for the stomach of a ruminant, roe or caviar for fish eggs, and mountain oysters for testicles.

Names of Dishes

Names for prepared foods follow several patterns. The commonest is a phrase with the main ingredients: chicken almond, beef and mushrooms, creamed tuna casserole, or with the cooking method as well as the food: poached eggs on toast, pork and vegetable stir-fry.

Another common pattern is to name foods after places. The meaning only indicates an origin and/or style. Sometimes the meaning is transparent, as in Polish sausage, Belgian waffle, or Spanish omelet, but often additional knowledge is required. Florentine (named for Florence, Italy) is for dishes with spinach, Bolognese (from Bologna) is with a meat sauce, and Bologna is a sausage. Veal Milanese (Milan) or Wiener Schnitzel (Vienna) is breaded and fried veal cutlet. Provençal (Provence) means made with tomato, garlic and olive oil, and chicken Kiev is chicken breast wrapped around butter, breaded, and fried, Salad Niçoise (Nice), Mongolian hot pot, Peking duck, Buffalo wings, and baked Alaska are other examples. Chicken Marengo was named in honor of Napoleon's victory at Marengo. Occasionally the name is misleading. French toast is an American dish, while homard à l'americain 'lobster American style' is a French dish. French-fried potatoes are common in France under the name pommes frites 'fried potatoes'.

A small number of words derived from place names have been resegmented and reanalyzed. Hamburger and Frankfurter were named after the German cities of Hamburg and Frankfurt, and Wiener is from Wien, the German name for Vienna. Hamburger was resegmented as ham + burger, although the food is made with chopped beef. Burger became a combining form to be added to any food served with ground beef (cheeseburger, baconburger ) or some meat instead of beef (chickenburger, fishburger ), or for a particular style (California burger ). Vegetarian versions are veggie burgers or garden burgers. Subsequently, burger has become an independent word. Frankfurter, often shortened to frank, has also become a combining form, yielding new words like turkeyfurter or turkeyfrank, with each part of the word combining with new parts. Hot dog, an informal term for frankfurters, has generated Tofu Pup, a vegetarian sausage. It also illustrates the trendiness of wordplay.

Some dishes are named after people, either for the inventor or in honor of some famous person. Sandwiches were invented by the Earl of Sandwich, and Beef Wellington honors the Duke of Wellington. Beef Stroganoff is a French dish created to honor the Russian diplomat Stroganov. Other examples are Oysters Rockefeller, Pavlova, a meringue dessert created to honor the dancer Anna Pavlova, and the pastries named for Napoleon and Bismarck.

French has had an especially strong influence on English names for food and dishes. The phrase à la appears in several dishes. One phrase taken from French is à la reine 'to the queen' or 'in honor of the queen' for creamed foods often served on a puffed pastry. This has led to à la king, a mixture of French and English that violates French grammar, since "la" is the feminine definite article, and king by virtue of its meaning would be masculine (if English still had grammatical gender in its definite articles). Other examples are riz à l'impératrice 'rice pudding' literally 'to the empress' and à la mode 'with ice cream' (literally 'in the style').

English speakers have borrowed freely from other languages for hundreds of years, taking the original spelling (if that language uses Roman letters) as well as an anglicized pronunciation. (This phenomenon is part of the reason for the irregular spelling of English.) Food names have been heavily borrowed along with the dish: sauerkraut and strudel (German); soufflé, mousse, crêpes, meringue, and fondue (French); spaghetti and other pasta names as well as pizza and spumoni (Italian); souvlaki (Greek); goulash (Hungarian); tortilla (Spanish); paella (Catalan); guacamole (Nahuatl, a native Mexican language); blini (Russian); cole slaw (Dutch); curry (Tamil, a language of South India); chutney (Hindi); shish kabob and baklava (Turkish); couscous (Arabic); sushi and tempura (Japanese); won ton (Chinese); succotash (Narragansett, a North American Indian language); and matzoh (Hebrew).

Marketing Strategies

In selling foods, whether in stores or restaurants, attractive names are selected for the product or the dish. Often foreign-language equivalents are used, sometimes along with the English equivalent. For example, spaghetti in tomato sauce might be labeled pasta in marinara sauce. In addition to the euphemisms for innards described above, the names of pet foods are especially interesting since the names are intended to appeal to the owners. One popular brand of cat food has names like "country-style dinner," "mariner's catch," and "prime entree." The ingredients listed in small print on the label do not sound so nice.

Zwicky and Zwicky (1980) in their investigation of menus in American restaurants show that names both inform and advertise. Two examples they present are "Entrecôte au Poivre Madagascarsirloin steak topped with green peppercorns, served with cream sauce and cognac" (Zwicky and Zwicky, p. 86) and "sautéed shrimp in garlic butterthe zesty garlic butter brings out the best in this epicurean treat from the sea" (Zwicky and Zwicky, p. 87). The first example describes and the second advertises. Zwicky and Zwicky observe that French is used on menus frequently because of the traditional association of French with fine food. The restaurant need not be French, and the French is often ungrammatical or mixed with English. Therefore, one finds Cuisine de Holland and Stuffed Tomato aux Herbs, Shoreham Style (Zwicky and Zwicky, pp. 8990).

Since many people are on diets for reason of health and/or weight control, there is concern with calories and with fat. The food industry has responded by offering products with less fat and fewer calories. One word for referring to these products is "light," sometimes spelled "lite." The Miller Brewing Company used the word to denote a beer with fewer calories than regular beer. Since a light beer is ambiguousit can be light in color (pale vs. amber or dark)the spelling difference can disambiguate the two senses. Although other beer companies have been prevented from using this spelling, lite has spread to many other foods with fewer calories than the normal counterpart. More recently, "free," a clipping of "fat free," has emerged to denote foods without fat.

See also Etymology of Food; Sandwich.


Cook's and Diner's Dictionary: A Lexicon of Food, Wine, and Culinary Terms. New York: Funk & Wagnall's, 1968.

Lehrer, Adrienne. "As American as Apple Pieand Sushi and Bagels: The Semiotics of Food and Drink." In Recent Developments in Theory and History: The Semiotic Web 1990, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok and Jean Umiker-Sebeok, pp. 389402. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1991.

Zwicky, Ann, and Arnold Zwicky. "America's National Dish: The Style of Restaurant Menus." American Speech 55 (1980): 8392.

Adrienne Lehrer

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