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.

*© S. Worthen 2009