The Writer's Almanac
Wednesday, 24 September 2008
This week, we continue to celebrate the anniversary of the Norman invasion of 1066. It was this week in 1066 that William the Conqueror of Normandy first arrived on British soil. The French-speaking Normans eventually defeated Old English-speaking Saxons at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066 — which had a larger and more pronounced effect on the development of the English language than any other event in history. Within the course of a few centuries, English went from being a strictly Germanic language to one infused with a large Latinate vocabulary, which came via French.
The French brought us all sorts of words that surround cooking, including the word gourmet, which in Old French was gromet, a wine-taster's assistant. At first, the term was used in jest, a satirical way to describe persons overly preoccupied with food, but the term became respectable and then even fashionable. Gourmand, French for glutton, is from the same root — and in early use, it carried with it a sense of moral disapproval, because food was often in short supply and so gluttony was hence deemed to be a serious transgression.
From the Norman invasion we get the word for supper — super, "to take one's evening meal" — as well as the word for dinner. In Old French, the word was disner, which evolved from a Latin word meaning "to break fast." A dinner entrée might feature any of these types of meat whose English names were derived from French:
Beef — from Old French boef, meaning "bull." The name for the farm animal, cow, remained in use from Old English.
Mutton — from Old French muton. The sheep, which gave its flesh, also maintained its Old English name.
Pork — from Old French porc, from Latin porcus. The Old English name again remains for the farm animal — swine — and we again use the French-derived name for what's served at the table.
The meat could be served in the form of a cutlet, a word stemming from the French côtelette, "little rib." Perhaps the meat is roasted, from the Old French rostir. It originally meant to cook before a fire; now, it has evolved so that it generally means to "cook in an oven." The verb grill, which people now often use to refer to cooking over a fire, comes from the French word for grate, the metal grid that separates the flame from the food. In the early 1700s, roast came to take on the meaning of "ridicule" or "criticize" — and today, we see celebrities and politicians roasted on late-night television.
And if you'd like a salad with that, you're asking for something derived from a French word — salade — from Latin salata, meaning "that which is salted." Although vinegar and oil were already available and used as condiments, early dressings for leaves of lettuce were often comprised of salt water.
Salt is also firmly rooted in the words salsa, sauce and saucy, and in the word salary. Before technology revolutionized the harvesting of salt into a cheap and easy process, salt was extremely precious, and soldiers of the Roman Empire were often paid part of their wages — that is, their salary — in the form of measured amounts of salt. Salt's ancient value as an important commodity also helps to explain the phrase "worth [his] salt."
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