Yesterday's Visual Thesaurus Word of the Day was mayonnaise, and the entry for it was a bit too terse for some readers: "This French word has enjoyed a handful of spellings since its first 19th-century appearance and merits an etymology of nearly 300 words in the OED, the gist of which is 'origin uncertain.'" There's nothing less satisfying in an etymological explanation than "origin uncertain," so let's explore what's behind those tantalizing words.
When the Oxford English Dictionary first published its entry for mayonnaise way back in 1906 (it was actually still called the New English Dictionary at the time), it provided an etymology representing the conventional wisdom of the day. The word was described as "prob. feminine of mahonnais of Port Mahon, capital of Minorca, taken by the duc de Richelieu in 1756." The story told about the capture of Port Mahon can be found in many places, such as the website for Hellmann's (and they should know their mayo, right?):
Mayonnaise is said to be the invention of the French chef of the Duke de Richelieu in 1756. While the Duke was defeating the British at Port Mahon, his chef was creating a victory feast that included a sauce made of cream and eggs. When the chef realized that there was no cream in the kitchen, he improvised, substituting olive oil for the cream. A new culinary masterpiece was born, and the chef named it "Mahonnaise" in honor of the Duke's victory.
This is a fun story, but in the century since the OED published its etymological conjecture, the editors and researchers in the employ of that august dictionary haven't found much to back it up. The main problem is that there is no evidence in French for either mahonnaise or mayonnaise until half a century after the capture of Port Mahon. The earliest mention of the term that has been found thus far actually appears in a German source, August von Kotzebue's Erinnerungen aus Paris of 1804, which refers to mayonnaise de poulet. After that, in 1806, is a citation for saumon à la mayonnaise. As for mahonnaise, supposedly the original spelling according to the Port Mahon story, it doesn't show up until 1808.
The 1808 source, Grimod de la Reynière's Manuel des amphitryons, reveals that the gourmands of the era were already stumped about where the word came from, or even how to spell it. "The purists in the kitchen do not agree on the names of these kinds of stews," writes de la Reynière, referring to the fish or meat dishes that were prepared with mayonnaise as a sauce. "Some say mayonnaise, others mahonnaise, and others Bayonnaise." He discounts mahonnaise, since the city of Mahon "is not known for good food" (saying nothing of the famous siege there). Instead, he surmises that Bayonnaise was actually the original version, and mayonnaise was a later corruption.
If de la Reynière was right, then mayonnaise owes its roots to the French town of Bayonne, not the Minorcan town of Mahon. But that's not the only theory floated by French epicures. The noted chef Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833) preferred yet another spelling: magnonnaise. This, he said, was from the French word manier, meaning "to handle," and referred to the method of preparing the sauce.
All of this was far too much to include in the limited space we provide for our Word of the Day offerings. Now you know why this one was labeled the "Hard to Track Word of the Day"! But rest assured that the gastro-etymologists will keep on the trail of mayonnaise until we know the full story... even if it takes another hundred years to find out.
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer