The Unusual Origins of Words in English

Posted on February 28, 2012

Abby, a good friend of mine, recently started a food blog: and while reading about a curry she had made it got me thinking about the origins of food words in English. Britain’s most popular takeaway, which we call “curry”, does not have the a similar name in any Indian language. It is in fact a mistranslation of the word for “black pepper” in the Tamil language.

One of the biggest genres in which American English and British English differ is in food vocabulary. When I was younger I would hear the word “eggplant” on American TV programmes and wonder what it was. I thought maybe it was a vegetable I’d never eaten before. It wasn’t until I heard the word and saw a picture of it at the same time that I discovered it was in fact what we in the UK call an “aubergine”. “Aubergine” has its origins in French, and “eggplant” gets its name from the fact that the unripe vegetables are small and white like eggs.

A lot of people assume that the word “sandwich” is so called because of how it’s constructed; it’s “sandwiched” together. While it’s true that you can describe two objects surrounding something inside like this, the word actually comes from a town in the South East of England. In the eighteenth century the Earl of Sandwich decided that he didn’t want to leave the gaming table for meals. He asked his servants to put some meat in between two slices of bread so he could pick it up easily.

On the subject of sandwiches, when I taught in Italy my students were bemused to find out that in English we often call an Italian toasted sandwich “panini” if it’s singular and “paninis” if it’s plural. In Italian it’s “panino” for the singular, and “panini” for the plural. I have seen “panini” advertised in England the Italian way, but the tendency is for the anglicised “paninis”.

Do you use English words in your native language? Are they used in the same way as they are in English? It would be great to hear your thoughts.


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