When I came across “aristology” in Julia Quinn’s To Catch An Heiress, I was momentarily surprised. How could I not have previously known a word meaning “the art or science of cooking and dining”? A mere 31,500 hits on Google reassured me it was, in fact, a word not in common circulation. Indeed, it has had a rather limited history of use, somewhat better known for its existence as an obscure word, beloved of vocabulary expansion programs, than actually much used in its own right.

Its first appearance was in 1835, when Thomas Walker published Aristology, or The Art of Dining. In it, he defines the term as his own coinage: “I call the art of dining Aristology, and those who study it, Aristologists.” Inasmuch as it could ever have been said to be popularized, a version of it was used in 1864 by Edward Abbot, whose cookbook, Cookery for the Many was labeled as “By an Australian Aristologist”. The book’s further distinction is that it was the first published Austrialian cookbook.

Mortimer Collins, the English novelist, is credited by the OED with first using the adjectival form, “aristological”. In Vol. 1, Ch. XV of Squire Silchester’s Whim (1873), he wrote,

You don’t get moor mutton with hot laver sauce every day. The author is inhibited by publishers and critics from aristological observations, or he would here describe a good Devonshire dinner. (pp. 191-2)

Fictionally, the word is best known from the name of a society, Ten for Aristology, investigated by Nero Wolfe in “Poison à la Carte”, a story in the Rex Stout collection, Three at Wolfe’s Door. (The full menu eaten in the story is available in The Nero Wolfe Cookbook.)

Quinn, in whose novel I ran across it, uses the word consciously as a vocabulary word, part of a “personal dictionary” of the book’s early nineteenth-century heroine. The character writes, “As a field of research and study, aristology is highly underrated.” (p. 280, intro to Ch. 18) I suspect the anachronism of its use in 1814 escaped the author.

Another commentary on the word is available at World Wide Words.

*© S. Worthen 2009