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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, February 4, 2011

Fries 'n' fish brine: Yum!

Some Canadians took to Twitter last week, vowing they would not buy Heinz ketchup ever again after Loblaws announced it would stop selling competitor French's, which is made with tomatoes grown in Canada.

In honour of Chinese New Year, let us look at a word whose origins are, surprisingly, Chinese: ketchup.

In Chinese dialect, k'e-chap meant “brine of pickled fish” (probably disgusting on french fries). Around 1700, the British discovered this condiment: a pickled sauce including anchovies or oysters, mushrooms and walnuts, but no tomatoes were involved, for they were expensive and besides viewed as a suspicious American import by the English till the late 1800s. "Ketchup", to Jonathan Swift, Byron, and Dickens (among the many great names in English literature who have felt the need to mention it) was probably more like Worcestershire sauce.

 In 1876, Heinz, needing to find a way to preserve the notoriously perishable fruit which by then the US was producing in large quantities, started using the word “ketchup” for a sweetish pureed pickle of tomatoes.

The form "catsup" evolved out of "catchup", which is the earliest form for which we have evidence in English. For a while, "catchup/catsup" and "ketchup" were in contention on both sides of the language, but "ketchup" quickly won out in Britain while both forms survived in the US. "Catsup", however, which in the mid-20th century was the favoured form in the US, has definitely been on the wane since about 1970, as this Google ngram shows.

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  1. Thank you, Katherine! This helpfully addresses an area of the Language where I've been more than usually confused. My customary confusion about English resulted from arriving in Canada (Montreal)at the age of 4.5 years, when I was at the stage of acquiring my basic vocabulary.

    Also thank you for introducing me to Books Ngram Viewer.

  2. Fascinating! I did not know this about ketchup. Next time I have some on my fries I shall be thankful it's not the brine of pickled fish. Love the Google ngram.

  3. For more interesting info on iffy fishy sauces, check out "Salt: A World History" by Mark Kurlansky. I love the history of small things, and it turns out, salty sauces have quite a history!


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.