Like a great many people who are interested in word histories, I’ve been playing with Google Lab’s new toy, Ngram Viewer, this week. It generates comparative graphs for words and phrases from across the corpus of books which Google has scanned in a given language, weighted for number of books in each historical period. It still has some problems from Google’s careless OCR’ing, but is, nevertheless, useful for general trends.

Looking through relative patterns in food words, one which stood out for me was the sharp rise in words for sweets and candies during the World Wars: in other words, people talked most about what they could least have, when rationed. “sugar”, proportionately, was discussed about twice as often in the late nineteen-teens as it is in books today. (See chocolate vs. sugar)

The same is true of “caramel”, whose towering heights of frequency came around 1915. The use of the word “caramel” had been generally on the rise since its earliest-known mention in 1725. The OED says it derives from the same word in French, cognate to similar words in Italian and Portugese: but from where it comes before that, they do not commit.

Scheler suggests that the Spanish represents Latin calamellus little tube, in reference to its tubular form; Mahn thinks it from medieval Latin cannamella sugar-cane: an Arabic source is conjectured by Littré.

Toffee, whose proportional heights were around 1730, has been eclipsed ever since. (See a longer-term toffee vs. caramel)


One of the fashionable colors of Spring 2011, Pantone suggests, will be the company’s own 18-4039, otherwise known as Blue Curacao. (via Intlxpatr) According to Pantone’s press release, the color “pays homage to the 2010 Color of the Year, Turquoise” and “evokes thoughts of tropical destinations”.

The blue and the tropic destination are nearly synonymous. Blue Curaçao is a spirit, a tongue-stainingly blue drink whose vivid color belies a more gentle citrus flavor. The drink itself comes from the Caribbean, known for its turquoise waters and pleasant beaches. It is made from the bitter citrus fruit called curaçao. The fruit is a descendent of the Seville orange, beloved of British marmalades. It grew even more bitter in the thin soil of the island to which it was transplanted by its Spanish immigrants.

That island is in the Caribbean, and goes by the same name as the fruit. Both drink and fruit are named after the island, although the origin of the island’s name is not known to the authors of the OED. It is regularly mispelled as curaçoa in English, as evidenced by the earliest uses of it which the OED records. (1810 R. J. Thornton Family Herbal 658 “The unripe fruit dried, are called Curaçoa oranges.”; 1813 T. Moore Twopenny Post Bag (L.), “And it pleased me to think at a house that you know Were such good mutton cutlets and strong curaçoa.”) The OED consciously the issue of whether the drink is named is named after the island or the fruit.

Whoever last edited the Wiktionary entry for it proposes it is a Dutch word, from the Portuguese curação, a restorative, or a cure. It’s plausible, thought I would love to see more evidence for it.

The island itself is where my interest in the word began, thanks to a little snippet in The Economist last month. That little announcement said that Curaçao the island was no longer part of the Netherlands Antilles: it, along with San Maarten, had become a nation in its own right on the 10th of October. It’s a new nation-state, with vivid blues, oranges, and a liquor to be its ambassadors.


The second time I met the woman who is now my mother-in-law, we spent part of the weekend preparing a buffet dinner for a party. There were vegetables to chop for crudités, crisps to pour into bowls, cream to whip, pots to stir, and glazes to paint on. Late in the afternoon, the meat dishes were baked: sausages in pastry and the turkey goujons.

I don’t know that I had encountered the word “goujons” before, because that’s how I imprinted it: a type of preparation of turkey. The inclusion of the word “turkey” in their name implied there could be other kinds of goujons, such as chicken, or possibly beef. They were four or five inches long, erratically thin – an inch or so, breaded and baked.

Clearly, the word was a French import, if pronounced Englishly. I thought no more about it until yesterday.

Last year at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, Raymond Blanc was one of the chefs who organized a sumptuous feast for the conference attendees. He’s a friendly fellow, congenially, chatty, welcoming. We talked briefly over his book-signing session and briefly again when he came round in person to pour a gravy the kitchen staff had overlooked. I went home with his autobiography, A Taste of My Life, autographed.

Yesterday, I finally started reading it. His childhood was structured by the cultivation and preparation of food, from the acre of family land devoted to vegetables and fruit, to the hours spent helping his mother in the kitchen. He joined his older brothers in learning to hunt, and to fish.

And what did Raymond Blanc fish for as a young boy? Pike, trout, crayfish – and goujons. In my mind I see little turkey fish, swimming about in rural French streams.

Goujons, then, are “tiny fish that love sandy banks and shallow water with a gentle current”. Blanc recounts how his mother served them as fritters, “by quickly gutting the fish, flouring them and deep-frying them until brown and crispy”. They were served with lemon and mayonnaise. (p. 63) In other words, exactly like the turkey goujons in preparation, if not in substance.

Blanc clarifies that these fish are anglicized as “gudgeons”. They are a relative of the carp, and are indeed quite small. This webpage (“Get Hooked on Fishing”) tells me that the current record for largest gudgeon, also known as a goby, caught in the UK is a mere five ounces.

The word gudgeon was an English import by the fifteenth century. It did indeed come from Middle French, which owes its earlier roots to the Latin name for the fish, “gobio”, whose accusative form, “gobionem” is considered the shape which impressed itself into the French word. The species name, accordingly, is Gobio gobio.

But gudgeon wasn’t the version of the word I learned first. Goujon is also imported from French, rather more directly so, but used from its earliest instance in English to refer to the battered, deep-fried version. The OED has an instance of it in 1940, when Andre L. Simon’s Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy defined it as “fillets of sole cut up in strips, floured and fried”. The dictionary specifies that the word as a dish entered English through Louisiana French.

And so it continued, with sole, not little gudgeons, being the English fish of choice for use in goujoning, so to speak.

Turkey may be a relatively recent variant. Google Timeline Search has no mentions of “turkey goujons” before 2002. “Chicken goujons” gets us back to 1984, while beef, pork, duck, and goose variants return no hits. Hardly conclusive, but probably generally indicative at least.

Thus it is that the French word “goujon” has twice entered the English language, at least in the UK, firstly as a little fish, the gudgeon, and secondly as a breaded and deep-fried (or baked) little fish-shaped bit of meat.

I’m still thinking about those little turkey fish.

had the biscuit

Despite my years in Canada, I can’t say I had encountered the phrase “had the biscuit” before today. As someone who is rather fond of biscuit-based phrases – something else I don’t think I so clearly knew before today – I was astonished to encounter it on a list of Canadianism.

Something which is broken or unusable has “had the biscuit”. Dead watches and badly-ripped clothing have had the biscuit.

Or is it just “had the biscuit”? I don’t see a great deal of consistency in tense among the first few examples of it I have encountered.

An initial trawl of websites yields the consensus that cookies are not involves in this biscuit however; it’s a Canadian Protestant derogatory term for the communion wafer, specifically that received during Extreme Unction.

My Canadian visitor was mildly surprised that I had somehow missed the phrase; but then I don’t think we’ve spent much of our friendship discussing broken things.

P.S. I didn’t forget about One Peppercorn! I’ve had a serious case of life lately: among other things, multiple international trips, good for adding to my food-related vocabulary.


A word’s potential can be so great.

“Kishes of new potatoes” read a line in the menu for the Irish banquet at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. If I ate more Irish food, I might have already known.

As was, it was a word of intrigue. Did it refer to its cooking method? The size of the new potatoes? Several definitions mentioned “gravel”, as least for the etymology of the word. How delightful! Perhaps kishes are gravel-sized lumps. It fit. As did the word’s current meaning in metallurgy, of carbon-rich graphic which forms on the surface of molten ore. When it was not an ancient Babylonian city.

But no. There’s nothing so metaphorical about the word, now that I’ve checked a dictionary. It’s straight out of the Irish language, and is a word for a basket. It’s a method of presentation.

Could it also be a unit of measurement? At least approximately? How many punnets to a kish? All baskets are not kishes, for, as Old Irish Life specifies, it is a “flat basket”. More specifically, they are flat baskets made of willows, as I note from the definition of “kish maker” as “a maker of willow baskets” from a list of old Scottish occupations.

Turf can be delivered in kishes, and poultry and fish can be delivered in kreels as well. Potatoes may be poured into a kish. A passage from Ireland: its scenery mentions “a kish and potato basket”, but I can’t tell if those are two things or one. In 1802, in Meath, 20 kishes of turf was worth £1. Its Irishness was such that in F.G. Trafford’s 1866 novel, Maxwell Drewitt, the titular character could say, “To the rice pot the Hindoo. The potato kish to the Irish.” (104)

But what about that passing mention of “kish maker” on a list of Scottish occupations? By some point, surely, “kish” became a loan-word from Irish more widely used in the British Isles; assuming its inclusion in this modern list is no error.

*© S. Worthen 2009