With picnic and barbecue season peeking around the corner, this month seems like a perfect time to get informed about what we’re eating, etymologically speaking. In a previous Word Stories instalment (Naturalized Flavours, 2018), we discussed the secrets of comfort food words like chocolate and ketchup. This time around, we dig into a few tasty terms associated with casual summer dining, beginning with the word picnic itself.
The word picnic is derived from the Middle French piquenique, which originally referred to a common meal where all the guests brought or bought their own part. French seems to have formed the word by combining piquer (“to take in passing”) and nique (“a little nothing”), and the earliest written English attestations from 1750 to 1850 accordingly present picnic as a foreign expression with two parts (pic nic or pic-nic). English speakers tended overwhelmingly to associate the word with common meals enjoyed outdoors, and piquenique in modern French has in fact taken on this secondary connotation as well. The word’s further connotations of pleasure and ease have also given rise to slang uses. When English speakers promise “This will be a picnic”, or describe an experience by saying “That was no picnic”, they’re commenting on how easy and pleasant a given event seems to them.
Mustard seeds have been used in culinary settings since prehistoric times, but it was the ancient Romans who invented a condiment made from them. It was called sinapis confecta, and it combined ground mustard seeds with a grape juice (or “must”) and various spices. Later recipes often replaced the must with vinegar or verjuice, but must (Latin mustum) remained at the root of mustard in French and thereby English.
Medieval French speakers seem to have developed the word mostarde/moustarde by adding the pejorative suffix -ard (feminine -arde) to the French word for must (most/moust). This explanation is strengthened by the fact that Spanish likewise added the pejorative suffix -azo (feminine -aza) to their word for must, to get mostaza (“mustard”). In any case, the French word was extended to include the spicy seeds involved in the recipe, and to the plant that bears the seed.
At the turn of the 14th century, English borrowed the word (using a variety of spellings, including mostard and mustart), and followed French in using it to describe the plant, the seed, and the condiment. Eventually, French settled on the form moutarde and English settled on mustard, but that wasn’t the end of the story. Over time, new uses were found for the word. In the 19th century, English began using the word mustard as an adjective to describe the yellowish colour of mustard or mustard seed powder. Twentieth-century slang used mustard to describe people who were sharp and made an impression: “That fellow is mustard” (E. Wallace, A King by Night, 1925). In an even more creative and impressionistic vein, the odd expression cut the mustard can be traced back to 1891 as a colourful way to say “measure up”. Some have suggested that it refers to the powerful punch the condiment packs. Others have seen it as a slang distortion of the expression passing muster. However it evolved, the idea of impressing people by cutting the mustard shows that the old word has travelled a long way from its origins in a paste made with grape juice.
The English word relish comes from the Old French reles (“that which is left behind”), a derivative of the verb relaisser (“to leave behind”). When English borrowed the word in the 1300s to refer to an aftertaste or any similar lasting impression, it was in fact still written as reles. The pronunciation and spelling relish only emerged later, in the 16th century. The derivative senses of “enjoyable savour” and “enjoyment” are also first attested in the same century. These shifting connotations gave rise to the use of relish in referring to any appetizer or a tasty menu item in the 18th century, and to any zesty and appetizing condiment in the 19th. The most common kind of relish on the food market today is a sauce made of vegetables—predominantly cucumbers—that have been diced, spiced and pickled.
The origin of the name mayonnaise is disputed, but one popular theory associates the name with the Balearic Islands of Spain, where similar sauces have been used since the Middle Ages. When the Duke of Richelieu conquered Mahón in 1756 (so the story goes), his cook discovered the local aioli sauce and used it to take the French culinary world by storm. This theory is supported, at least, by the fact that mayonnaise was sometimes written as mahonnaise in French. When English borrowed the sauce and the word in the early 18th century, though, it was always mayonnaise.
Discover interesting etymological notes in the Antidote Historical Dictionary.