Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sliding Sideways Part II

Every once in a while, I like to talk about subjects tangentially related to word origins and relationships - topics I call "Sliding Sideways".  Lookie here, we got another one.

I'm reading a funny little book by H. Allen Smith entitled The Great Chili Confrontation.  This book chronicles the events culminating in the first famous chili cookoff in Terlingua, Texas in 1967.  Accordingly, Smith (no relation) waxes authoritative and humorous about all things chili.  At one point, Smith treats us to a real etymological delight regarding how chili was once referred to in Los Angeles:
Mr. Beck tells me that chili was once called “size” in the town known to him as Lil-ole-ell-ay. “Size” came into usage by way of one Ptomaine Tommy, once proprietor of the largest and best known chili parlor in the city. Ptomaine Tommy served straight chili and an epical Southwestern variation, a hamburger smothered with chili. He had two ladles, a large and a small. When a customer ordered straight chili, he got out the large ladle. When he wanted the other, he usually said “Hamburger size.” So Ptomaine Tommy put up one sign that read HAMBURGER SIZE 15¢, and another that read CHILI SIZE 20¢. Other chili joints followed suit and before long chili was know throughout Los Angeles as “size”. They’d say, “Just gimme a bowl of size.” source
The actual thing, chili, came to be called something related to its portioning, size.  When I read this section of the book, I was immediately reminded of a prior post here at BackWords Blog on the word ambulance.  Originally, an hôspital ambulant  (walking hospital), the term became shortened in English "ambulance" - just the walking portion was kept, with the actual thing, hospital, getting dropped altogether.  Just like chili in Los Angeles, the primary thing - chili / hospital - came to be referred to by an incidental thing.

Let's return to the food world to get one more example.  Cheese is one of the most ancient and common foods in the world.  Across Europe this substance is called queso (Spain), cacio (Italy), Käse (Germany), queijo (Portugal).  These words come from the IE root kwat meaning age, ferment, or sour.  Fitting.  Did you notice I didn't mention France among that list of countries and their words for cheese?  All those words look and sound like "cheese", but oh no, not the French.  The French do a little sliding sideways themselves and call cheese fromage.  Like size and ambulance, fromage refers to the fact that cheese is formed into brick, wheels, blocks, and other shapes.  The French don't refer to the food itself, but to the process of how it is handled.  (Ironically, here is a page discussing the Forms of Cheese.)

These are just the three words that strike me as related at the moment.  But I'm sure I'll be sliding sideways again soon when I discover more sideways words.

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