Can I Eat It? Language Oddities in the Food World, Part 1

As much as I love eating food, I also like to learn where things in the culinary world come from, and even the etymology of ingredients.

Of course, there are a number of edibles in every language that stand out, and I’m not referring to their taste or health benefits.  I’m talking about the food’s name, and how similar it can be to a subject completely unrelated to the food world.

You know, the homophones – words sounding alike, homographs – words written alike – and homonyms, which encompass the two.

Other languages will follow in a later post, but for today, I will focus on a few standouts from English.


Here’s a good time to ask “what’s in a name?”

To make apple cider vinegar, yeast is added to apple juice, which begets the breakdown of sugars, turning them into alcohol.  Thereafter, certain bacteria are added, to convert the alcohol into acetic acid, eventually becoming vinegar (acetum is Latin for “vinegar.”)

Some believe that it is the bacteria – which causes the vinegar to be fermented – to be reason the term mother was adopted.  Others say that the mother is the cloudy sediment in unpasteurized vinegar which wasn’t fully fermented.  That latter story is backed up by the Middle Dutch word modder, referring to “dregs and lees.”

No matter which – ehem – old wives’ tale you believe, the mother is purportedly the healthiest part of vinegar, containing a greater concentration of probiotics to promote a healthier digestive tract.


Rye Field (Photo by Andrea Stöckel)

How do you go from rye, a cereal grass popular in delis across the US, to wry, an expression of disgust or disappointment?

Simple: when they’re out of pastrami.


In Turkish, ekmekistan means “land of bread”

Exercise equipment can be expensive.  To all of those in the anti-carbs bloc, would your opinion change if you had a lot of dough?  How about a lot of bread?

Consider that decades ago, there weren’t nearly as many choices for eats are there are now.  Bread was more of a necessity for survival.  Thus, having bread meant having money.

Pea/Pea Coat (and no, not that other similar-sound word)


Peas, the oft-derided legume of many a Western childhoods, haven’t gotten a break even in many folks’ adulthood.  (Pea ice cream, pea protein powder, pea…salmon?)  I’m a fan of peas – particularly those from Nando’s – but admittedly I look askance when they try to invade my frozen desserts.

Still, why did the pea coat borrow that word?  Another easy one.  The Dutch invented the pea coat in the 1800s, when they had one of the world’s strongest navies.  The Dutch word, pije (the “j” sounds like the “y” in yes), refers to a coat made of coarse wool fabric.

Ham Radio

Radio (Photo by Wellford Tiller)

An amateur radio operator is called a ham.  Why?  I’ve got a tricky – and perhaps disingenuous – answer for you.

According to this ham radio fanpage, it stems from a group of three radiophiles – whose last initials spelled out HAM -at Harvard in 1908.  More likely, it comes from clumsy telephone operators being called “ham-handed” in the late 1800s, soon after the telephone was invented.  Still another possibility was the British English pronunciation of amateur, which sounded more like “hamateur” to US English speakers.

How Do You Like Them Apples?

Did you know that apples originate from present-day Kazakhstan? (Photo taken in Almaty, Kazakhstan)

This phrase doesn’t include a homonym; rather, it’s more of a euphemism.

Though reports of the phrase “how do you like them apples?” date back to at least 1895 – in that case, the reporter was gloating that one particular cotton vendor outsold every other – the phrase was popularized during World War I used mockingly to demonstrate levity. German troops fashioned grenades and mortar shells out of apple and plum tin cans, which led to US and British soldiers calling those improvised devices “toffee apples” and “plum pudding.”

There are certainly many more examples , but these were the first ones that came to mind.


Kouji: The National Fungus of Japan

If you have ever traveled to East Asia, visited a Chinatown, or studied Chinese and/or Japanese, you likely have come across the character 酒.  In Chinese, it is pronounced jiǔ, and in Japanese, generally it is さけ (sake) or しゅ (shu).  The character originally referred to wine, but now encompasses all liquor.  Harking back to when pubs doubled as places to spend the night, in China, 酒店 –  jiǔ​diàn –  means “hotel,” although it literally means “liquor store.”

Referring to the above photo, 甘酒, or amazake, can be translated as sweet liquor, or sweet sake.  Yet, written right below that word in the picture is the phrase ノンアルコール, meaning non-alcoholic.  How can that be?

A bit of backstory: the full name of the drink is 米麹甘酒 (こめこうじあまざけ) komekouji amazake, or malted rice sweet sake.  The key element of the name is the character 麹, aka 糀, which is koji/kouji, a fungus primarily used to ferment soybeans, in addition to aiding in the creation of rice vinegar and alcoholic beverages.

Kouji was first discovered in China more than 2, 300 years ago., and introduced to Japan around 300 A.D.  To create kouji, spores of a fermentation culture, called Aspergillus oryzae, are injected into rice that has been steamed and then cooled. After a couple of days of being stored in a warm place, as A. oryzae begins to break down the proteins and carbohydrates of the rice, the fungus begins to form.  Finally, the kouji is separated from the decomposition, ready for their task in preparing our favorite soy sauces, mirin, and liquor, among other products.

Indeed, it is the fermentation process that explains why the amazake drink isn’t mislabeled, and why kouji has become Japan’s 国菌 (こっきん) kokkin, or national fungus.

Among these two titans of international cuisine, it’s always fascinating to learn about the humble ingredients quietly playing their parts behind the scenes.

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