Linguists use the term "lexical variant" to describe any of various terms that stand for the same thing. Lexical variants exist between languages, within languages, within dialects, and between dialects. English, being particularly rich both in dialects and vocabulary-wise, is riddled with lexical variants. Some of the most interesting ones can be found in the differences between English's two high-power dialects, British and American. The Visual Thesaurus includes terms and spellings from both dialects.
Among the large set of British-American variants, those denoting food terms are particularly interesting, and since I'm a little bit peckish today I thought I'd see what's to eat in the Language Larder, right next door. Language Lounge's British-speaking cousin, who is visiting this month, accompanies me.
"Shall we make a salad? This looks like endive," I remark, picking up a delicate pod of pale leaves.
"It's chicory, isn't it?" remarks my British friend politely, but leaving no doubt in my mind about the utter confidence of her assertion. This time, I'll concede, we're both right. These two terms are notoriously confusing between the two dialects, and their word maps give you a pretty good indication of why: the plants are related, and the terms are used interchangeably - sometimes carelessly - to designate the varieties of the leafy, blue-flower-bearing genus of plants Cichorium. Radicchio is in this genus too, but its redness sets it apart.
"Let's put in some romaine too, shall we?" I suggest.
"I beg your pardon? Oh that. That's cos, isn't?"
We're both right again! These two terms unambiguously denote the same thing in American and British English. But suddenly my companion's accent has gone all posh and there's something about her tone that seems a bit condescending to me; I'm not sure I like it.
"I'm just going to nip into the Lounge for a moment," remarks my Albionic companion. Unbeknownst to me till some time later, she has gone to turn on the display of French terms in the Visual Thesaurus, having anticipated that a lexical food fight is about to begin, and wanting to get the upper hand early on.
"Do you think that's enough?" She remarks, on returning, with a glance at my leafy efforts. "I'll just throw in a few leaves of this mâche," she then declares.
"This much what?" I ask, but then notice that what she's dropping into the bowl is actually corn salad. This time, you've got to hand it to the Brits: mâche does have a more elegant ring to it than corn salad, though the term lamb's lettuce, found in both dialects, is perhaps best of all and avoids the taint of nationalism.
Her Britannic Majesty has now taken over the salad and is just giving it its last toss when she suggests, "Let's cook up a few veg too, shall we?"
Oh no, I think. Boiled vegetables. But they say that British cuisine has actually moved on a bit. "Okey-dokey," I say agreeably, in true Yankee can-do spirit.
"How about these mange-tout?"
"Mange what?" I inquire politely, thinking that my friend is having a little code-switching problem. "Oh, those. You mean snow peas."
It's a strange phenomenon but true: British English has a significant number of food terms borrowed from French that we don't use in American English. This pair of lexical variants - snow pea as opposed to mange-tout - exemplifies it. Is the proximity of the continent to blame?
"How about putting in some eggplant too?" I suggest.
"Ah. Surely you mean aubergine?"
Too right. And to my chagrin, I see that aubergine gets double billing in the Visual Thesaurus, once to indicate the French term and once to indicate the British.
"Let's cut up a courgette as well," says Miss Brit, with uncanny confidence, now knowing that she's got me two to one in the VT.
"I suppose you mean zucchini," I say, feeling thoroughly squashed.
Moments pass while we both silently chop. I remember a great quote from Hungarian-born author George Mikes: "On the Continent people have good food. In England people have good table manners." But I decide not to share it at this moment, while reflecting that maybe this goes some way towards explaining why Brits use so many French terms for foods that Americans have a different name for: it makes their food sound better than it is.
"Shall we sprinkle a little cilantro on the salad?" I suggest.
"That's actually coriander, and let's put it in the vegetable instead. I think the roquette I put in the salad will make it tasty enough."
Is that, uh, a skyrocket or a retro-rocket, I'm wondering. But it's actually arugula, another case (like zucchini) where Americans use a term from Italian and Brits use one from French. Interestingly, however, rocket, arugula, and roquette all trace their lineage back, eventually, to the Italian word ruca.
"I wonder what this will do in the microwave," says our visitor from across the way, with a rather large, globular, green-skinned Cucurbit in her hand.
Explode, I think, but I helpfully suggest, "I think squash is probably better steamed."
"Oh. I thought it was some sort of pumpkin."
Here again, we're both right, but the American term has a better claim of precedence: squashis from askútasquash, a Narragansett word. European settlers borrowed this from Native American speakers almost as soon as they landed on North American shores and soon after, Americans adopted it wholeheartedly as the generic term for many fruits in the Cucurbit family. We even have the general terms winter squash for the slow-maturing varieties (Brits call most of these pumpkins) and summer squash for the fast-maturing varieties (Brits call these marrows; don't ask why.) The word map at squash gives you a good picture of the various terms in this family of fruits.
While you've got the squash map up, click on the node between squash and squash vine; this will give you a chance to explore many of the interrelated and overlapping terms in this big family of edible fruits. If you've still got the French display turned on, you'll note that gourde and courge are on your screen. Gourde is the source of our word gourd, another generic term for Cucurbit fruits, and courge is French for squash (or pumpkin, if you like), and the source of the diminutive courgette.
I'm just on the verge of asking our guest if she'd be kind enough to set the table, but think better of it when I realize that this would open a whole new can of variants and there would be talk of cutlery, crockery, serviettes, and who knows what else. So I lay the places myself, and harmony prevails!
If you're a foodie as well as a word nerd, you probably know already that the Internet provides pretty rich pickings. There's a good glossary of British food terms on the BBC site, for those who have ever puzzled over the terms in a British recipe:
You'll be happy to know that most of the terms are the same between the dialects! Another place to explore lexical variants, specifically with reference to plants (including ones that you probably don't want to eat!) is the Plant Name Database. It offers thumbnail pictures as well, which are helpful to confirm that you know what you're talking about:
This is but one of many such Internet databases; a search via an engine on "Plant Name Database" should keep you mind feasting for hours.
Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website.Click here to read other articles by Orin Hargraves
- Rate this article: