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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Holy crêpe

Today is Shrove Tuesday, otherwise known as Pancake Day from the tradition of eating pancakes to use up the remaining eggs before the beginning of Lent. A perfect time to look at the word "crêpe". Both "crêpe" and "crisp" come from the same Latin word, crispus. But before you leap to the conclusion that this is because crêpes are crispy around the edges, I have to tell you that it is a lot more convoluted (and interesting!) than that.

Back in Latin, crispus meant "curly-haired". Surprisingly, this word was borrowed into English very early, back in Anglo-Saxon times when English did not borrow heavily from Latin except for church terms. Intriguing. Why did the Anglo-Saxons need to borrow this word? Perhaps Anglo-Saxon hair didn't have the curly gene whereas Italian hair did? Whatever the reason, the word had been borrowed before 900, when Bede described someone as having "crisp locks".

Meanwhile, the French had also inherited crispus  from Latin but turned it into cresp. They also used it of hair, but also of other wavy things, and by 1285 they were using it of thin pancakes, not because they were crispy around the edges but because they were wrinkly around the edges (crêpe has never had in French the "crunchy" sense that "crisp" has in English). The French carried on eating cresps -- which became crêpe when the the s fell out of the word (memorialized only by that circumflex) -- while the more literally-minded English ate the culinarily identical "pancakes" for several centuries.

Auguste Escoffier of the Savoy Hotel, late Victorian and Edwardian England's version of a celebrity chef,  introduced the English to crêpes Suzette. 
No doubt Mrs Patmore would have served them to the Crawleys at the Downton Abbey dinner table. Drenched in a boozy orange sauce, these were the only crêpes the English knew about until the crêpe craze of the 1970s made crêpes ubiquitous as an all purpose wrapping for all kinds of fillings.


  1. And they bear absolutely no relation to the thick, heavy pancakes we eat in North America with syrup. In the England of my youth, the thin pancakes were served with squeeze of lemon and sugar (which is also crispy).

    1. Ah! That brings back the memory of my mother explaining to me, every Shrove Tuesday, about English pancakes and the lemon & sugar.

  2. That's absolutely true, Jenny. As a child in England I was first introduced to my Canadian mother's pancakes (called griddlecakes in her University of Manitoba Home Ec cookbook, also called hotcakes, esp. by Americans, or flapjacks, but that's a discussion for a whole other post!). Then I was quite stunned in school one day when we made pancakes and they were the thin kind. You can't beat maple syrup though, in my opinion, though I do like lemon and sugar on crepes.

  3. Hello,

    The Romanian word for "crisp lock" would be "CÂRLIÓNȚ, cârlionți (s.m.)". The official Romanian dictionary says its etymology is unknown. Another dictionary suggests a connection to the word for "hook".

    There are also "buclă" for "crisp lock", obviously from the French "boucle", as well as "zuluf" which is ... Turkish:

    zülüf - n. lovelock

    So, sorry, I couldn't help.



    I wonder if this French verb is related to "crisp":

    crisper - v. contort, tense

  4. the best combination is crepes soaked overnight in maple syrup mixed with melted butter

    1. Hello,

      I offer to add to it: I, at least, love it (still) with some delicious fruit jam or fruit preserve as a filling! :)

      Wishful thinking, of course.


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.