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Column: A Word, Please: A food word’s background can be delicious

I’m not an etymology buff. Though I love many aspects of language, word histories don’t interest me much.

The plots are too formulaic: Scrappy young word starts out on a trek that winds through several countries before arriving in America, profoundly changed by the journey. The story gets repetitive.

So it was a surprise recently to find myself going down a rabbit hole of word-history research just for the fun of it.

What was different this time? The words I researched were about something that, all by itself, can hold my attention: food.


With the holidays in full swing, you may be as food-focused as I am. So here are a few word histories I found delicious.

Chow. Chinese immigrants who came to California in the late 1700s brought with them words like the Cantonese chaau, which meant to fry or to cook, and also the Chinese term cha or tsa, which meant mixed or a medley of some sort.

As the immigrants picked up English and blended it with their own terms to create a pidgin language, “chow-chow” referred to any type of relish and, eventually, any type of food.

Chinese cuisine, especially, came to be known as “chow.” But eventually “chow” became a word to mean food of any type or origin.


Grub. If you’re hoping to keep the pounds off this holiday season, perhaps this will help. “Grub,” in the sense meaning food, is as unappetizing as you might suspect.

Dating back to the 1650s, the term is thought to reference birds eating grubs. Grubs, of course, are insect larvae and have been called that since the early 1400s.

Scarf. I’ve always liked this slang term for “eat hastily.” Sometimes, there’s just no better word to describe how to go at a stack of pancakes. If it sounds like teen slang to you, it is.

Young people started using “scarf” in the 1960s. Before that, the verb was a noun dating to the 1930s meaning food. Researchers believe it could have come from the Old English word sceorfan, which meant to gnaw or bite.

Vegetable. I love vegetables, but, oddly, I hate the word — to my ear, an ugly arrangement of syllables (though somehow “veggie” is even worse).

But enough about my weird aural sensibilities. Vegetable is rooted (sorry, not sorry) in the Old English word wyrt, or wort, meaning root, herb, vegetable, plant or spice.

Before that, it may have come from the Proto-Germanic wurtiz or Old High German wurz, meaning a plant or herb. Its Old Saxon ancestor is wurt and corresponds to Old Norse and Danish urt. It’s related to St. John’s wort, which goes back to the 15th century.

Bread. If you guessed this word would have a complicated, nearly impossible to understand history, you guessed right. Old English used it the same way we do, concurrent with languages using similar words, like the Old Norse braud, Danish brod, Old Frisian brad, Middle Dutch brot, Dutch brood and German brot.


There’s a theory that it relates to a Proto Germanic root bhreu, which meant to boil, bubble or effervesce — a reference to the leavening process. A competing theory argues that it originated from the Proto Germanic word braudsmon meaning “piece of food,” “fragments,” “bits” or “crumbs.”

Meat. Old English speakers used mete to mean food, in general. But by 1300, it was being used for a more specific type of food: flesh. Middle English speakers continued to use grene-mete to mean all types of food, keeping that meaning alive into the 15th century.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at