Malay Contributions to English, pt. 3

Recently, the Congress of the United States of America preserved the pride and culture of our great land by passing a resolution renaming French Fries “Freedom Fries”. Yes, they did. This of course was due to France’s unwillingness to support the war on Iraq. But members of the Coalition of the Unwilling are still at large, infiltrating our national foods and imperiling the purity of the language we use to describe them. Yes, my fellow Americans, I’m talking about that most American of condiments, that most suitable companion to our cherished Freedom Fries, Ketchup! Ketchup, red as the stripes on our flag, is taken from a Malaysian word; Malaysia, a country steadfast in opposition to our nice little war.

After the initial shock fades, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the word for a condiment should come from Malaysia. Europeans went to all corners of the Earth, circumnavigated the globe, just to get spices from the Malay archipelago to put a little flavor into their bland, tasteless cuisine. Pepper, clove, cinnamon, star anise; empires rose and fell in pursuit of these. Why, after all that effort, now that all these wondrous spices are available cheap and in abundance, is American food so dull? I can’t answer that.

But back to Ketchup! Ketchup comes from the Malay word kicap, pronounced kee-chap. It means a soy-based sauce, some sweet, some salty, some with oyster or anchovy extract, all usually with MSG these days unfortunately, and none with tomatoes. I’ll let Bartleby take it from there:

Sailors seem to have brought the sauce to Europe, where it was made with locally available ingredients such as the juice of mushrooms or walnuts. At some unknown point, when the juice of tomatoes was first used, ketchup as we know it was born. But it is important to realize that in the 18th and 19th centuries ketchup was a generic term for sauces whose only common ingredient was vinegar. The word is first recorded in English in 1690 in the form catchup, in 1711 in the form ketchup, and in 1730 in the form catsup. All three spelling variants of this foreign borrowing remain current.

I have learned to listen closely to distinguish the two words, since my two-year old will sometimes take ketchup on her scrambled eggs, and will sometimes take kicap, and woe unto he who is betwixt the two confused. Woe, I say.

[Image: GorillaAttack/Shutterstock]


2 thoughts on “Malay Contributions to English, pt. 3

  1. This reminds me of my theory that the English were the most effective colonists and empire-builders because their food at home was so bad.

    When the French got discouraged, they would dream of creme brulee and miss being at home instead of out in the wilderness among savages to whom caramelization was an unknown concept.

    When the English got discouraged, the would think about blood pudding and decide to press on. And now we see the results: the French still have excellent French food, while the only decent food to be found in Britain is served by immigrants from East and South Asia, the Middle East and Mediterranean area.

    If the Americans are in Iraq for long, perhaps they will come home with a better appreciation for more interesting food than the hot dogs and hamburgers on which they smear ketchup. Aside from the Crown Jewels, a love for curry is probably the best thing the Brits got out of India.

Leave a Reply