35 fascinating word origins of popular foods & drinks



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Did you know that nachos were invented by a man called Nacho? It’s true. The Oxford English Dictionary recently announced this newly unearthed etymological gem and, with it, the fascinating story of how researcher Adriana Orr pinpointed the moment of their mouthwatering inception.

Through a combination of sheer determination and good fortune, Orr traced the origin of the dish to its creator Ignacio Anaya, “chef at the old Victory Club in Piedras Negras — a small Mexican town just across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas — as the person who assembled the first nachos for some Eagle Pass ladies who were on a shopping trip during the 1940s.”

“Nacho” is a diminutive form of Ignacio — the inventor of the dish!

Our nerd-radar duly activated, we decided to dive into our OED and Merriam-Webster to look into the word-roots of some of our other favorite foods, now expanded to include a total of 35.



From Latin biscoctum, meaning "twice cooked." The original English term (referring, of course, to a cookie) comes from the method of preparation used by bakers to ensure a product that would last a long time on sea voyages.

From the 16th to the 18th century, the word was spelled "bisket," the way it’s pronounced. "Biscuit," according to the OED is a “senseless adoption of the modern French spelling.” Nothing senseless about a nice cookie.



Originally, custard wasn’t the thing you pour on the pie — it was the pie itself. The OED says that it was “a kind of open pie containing pieces of meat or fruit covered with a preparation of broth or milk, thickened with eggs, sweetened and seasoned with spices.”

The word is related to crustarde  from French, meaning “a sort of rich pie, made of flesh, eggs, herbs, spices, etc., enclosed in a crust.” Some sense of the original still exists in the U.K., where egg custards are popular purchases at High Street bakeries. The meaning changed around 1600 to the one we are more familiar with today.



With or without alcohol, no party is complete without some mixed fruitiness. The first appearance of this word was also in 1600. It comes from the Sanskrit pañca  (meaning "five") in the word pañcāmṛta, which means "five nectars (of the gods)." 

Originally, it is believed these five ingredients were milk, curd, butter (or ghee), honey and sugar (or molasses). Interestingly, the "amrt" (nectar) part of the word is at the root of our word "ambrosia."



The Aztecs called them "ahuacatl." The fruit was noted for its globular appearance and was thought to be an aphrodisiac. As such, the word "ahuacatl" refers to certain parts of the male anatomy.

The invading Spanish called them "aguacate," a word which, over time, turned into "avocado," the original form of "abogado" or "lawyer." Thus, "avocado" becomes a disparaging word for a (potentially) distrusted profession. The OED calls this story “popular etymology,” meaning it is unproven. It is, however, deeply tempting to believe, right?



"Ketchup" is a relative newcomer to the English language — the OED’s first citation is from 1711. English sailors discovered the sauce — which began as a “brine of pickled fish or shellfish” — on their travels to China in the 18th century.

Indeed, the word comes from the Amoy dialect of Chinese (kôechiap or kê-tsiap). From there, it came to represent condiments of many kinds, including mushroom, shellfish, walnuts and bananas. However, the word’s drift toward meaning "tomato sauce" is arguably well under way.



The original meaning of "season" is the one we still use today. It's a time of year — literally, a "sowing time." From there, it came to mean, generally, a "period of time."

Cooks soon learned that aging some foods helped improve their flavor. In Old French, this process is saisonner, "to season." This word, meaning "the process of improving flavor," was soon adopted for any means of doing so, including the addition of herbs and spices.



Although usually spelled universally in the U.S. with the "e," technically the Irish drink has the "e" where the Scottish one does not. According to the OED, the word is short for whiskybae, from the Gaelic uisgebeatha, meaning "water of life." You’ll get no arguments here. Not to mention …



This old friend of the writing staff comes to us from Arabic via medieval Spain (as does algebra, albatross, alchemy and alfalfa). Interestingly, though, it originally had nothing to do with your punchbowl (see above).

The Arabic al-kuhul  was a fine powder used to darken eyes and took its name from kahala, meaning "to stain" or "to paint." (This is where we get our word "kohl.") The word then took a circuitous route, first meaning "a powder produced by sublimation," then “any sublimated substance, the pure spirit of anything,” which included liquids. 

As the dictionary records, by 1736, it meant "a spirit obtained by distillation." As with ketchup, it was a short step from meaning a varied set of things to meaning a specific substance, "the intoxicating element in fermented liquors."



35 fascinating word origins of popular foods & drinks

The word “scallion” (like a great number of English words) first appeared in the language via the 11th-century Norman invaders of England. Their word scaloun  was derived from the Latin Ascalonia caepa  meaning “onion of Ascalon.” This itself was a variant spelling of the ancient Palestinian seaport of Ashkelon (now in Israel), the place the Romans and the Greeks before them believed the vegetable originated — it probably came from still further East. From the same root (pun completely intended) we also get our word “shallot.”