Monthly Archives: February 2012


What do you call the sticky liquid that you put on flapjacks?

Syrup is the easy answer.

Syrup, a word that comes from the Old French sirop. Syrup appears in various forms across Western European languages, including medieval Latin siropus, Dutch siroop, and Spanish jarope (which refers to a medicinal potion, it’s sweeter counterpart, ajarabe is now obsolete).

All of these forms are descended from Arabic sharbat, which is from the verb shariba “to drink”.  (We will revisit this in a moment.)

Syrup is defined by the OED as “thick, sweet liquid; especially one consisting of a concentrated solution of sugar in water”.  In addition to its role as a culinary sweetener, syrup was also used as medicine (or, really, a vehicle for medicines) and it shows up in English writing as early as 1392.

There are different kinds of syrup, maple syrup from trees (a resource first tapped by Native Americans), corn syrup from breaking down corn starch with hydrochloric acid (yikes), and cane syrup from sugar cane.

There are a variety of names for what we think of as syrup, including long sweetening (used in opposition to short sweetening, which is crystalized sugar), molasses, treacle, sugar tree syrup, tree syrup, tree molasses, and ribbon cane syrup.

The word molasses probably came into English by way of the Portuguese melaços, the plural form of melaço (ultimately from Latin mell “honey”).  Molasses was adopted in this plural form, but is construed by Americans as singular (except in the southern and central US, where it is frequently used as a plural).

Molasses is thick. Are thick. Whatever.

The singular form, molass, is a now-obsolete term used in Scotland for a “liquor distilled from molasses”.  A 1772 quote complains about the thousands of private stills in Edinburgh that were “constantly employed” in preparing this “poisonous liquid”.

Molass can also (though rarely) be heard as another American term for molasses (or syrup).

There are lots of different molasseses.

The syrup~molasses connection is all in the production of the sweetener.

To make cane syrup, you start by crushing the sugar cane and boil the juices.  This promotes the crystalization of sugars.

Sugarcane. This kind is also referred to as ribbon cane.

The result of this first boiling is raw sugar and a thick, sticky liquid called first molasses (also known as mild molasses, second molasses, or Barbados molasses), which, due to its high sugar content is very sweet.  Boil it again and you have dark molasses, which has a more bitter taste now that more sugar has been removed.  A third boiling results in blackstrap molasses, which is quite bitter, since even more of the sugar has been removed.

Blackstrap is a specifically American-devised term for the dark, third sugar-extraction stage syrup, black for its color and strap (most likely) from the Dutch word stroop (“syrup”).  A 1918 quote from McCann’s Science of Eating refers to blackstrap as the “lowest by-product masquerading under the name of molasses”.  Despite it’s “low” reputation, blackstrap actually has significant amounts of vitamins and minerals (it used to be used as a dietary supplement and still has a bit of a reputation as a cure-all). Blackstrap is often used as an addition to animal feed.

A tablespoon for what ails you.

The term blackstrap can be heard in the northeastern US to refer to a beverage made with rum, molasses, and (sometimes) beer.

Treacle is another term for the syrup that results from sugar cane-boilings.  Golden treacle (or golden syrup) from the first boiling, and dark treacle (or black treacle)  from the second boiling.

During the Middle English era, you would have been given treacle as an antidote for a snakebite.  The word treacle, in fact, is ultimately derived from the Greek θηριακός “pertaining to wild beasts or poisonous reptiles”.

If there is a difference between treacle and molasses, we Americans don’t see it.  Apparently we are brazen about it.

British molasses.

Hall’s Modern English (published in 1873) notes that, “The very marked distinction between molasses and treacle is commonly ignored in America, where the latter is seldom heard”.

Silly Americans.

The folly continues, as we see the 1902 work of Greenough and Kittredge, Words and their Ways in English Speech, noting that, “‘Treacle’ is applied indifferently to the ‘spume of sugar’, to ‘maple syrup’, and to ‘molasses’”.

Remember how the ultimate ancestor of syrup is the Arabic sharbat?  Well, sharbat (from shariba “to drink”) is also the etymological ancestor of sherbet.  (Which makes sherbet and syrup cousins.)

Sherbet. Cousin of syrup.

It makes more sense than you might think if you take the idea of syrup as a “thick, sweet liquid” and and consider the original sense of sherbet, which is a “cooling drink of the East, made of fruit juice and water, sweetened, often cooled with snow”.  My reasoning here is that syrup is something that you use as a base for a sweet drink (like simple syrup).

Middle Eastern sharbat

Several of the OED examples for sherbet refer to it as a drink, such a 1603 description from Knolles’ General History of the Turkes, “The guests dranke water prepared with sugar, which kind of drinke they call Zerbet”.

Obviously there are some variations in spelling.

The use of sherbet for a kind of drink continues in the UK, where if you asked for “a sherbet”, you would be given a “effervescing drink made of sherbet powder”.

Among American speakers, sherbet (also known by the pronunciation sherbert) is used casually as another name for sorbet.

Sorbet. Really it's frozen sharbat.

Sorbet comes to English from French sorbet, which came from Italian sorbetto, which came from Turkish shorbet, which is, of course, another descendant of Arabic sharbat and shariba.

The move from iced fruit drink to frozen dessert also makes sense.  A 1613 quote shows us how it works as it describes an icy sorbetta concoction as a “kinde of drinke made of Water, Suger, and iuyce of Lemonds, mixed with Amber and Muske”.

Musk?  Surely not.

In the US, there is a technical distinction made between sherbet and sorbet, the former having 1-2% dairy content and the latter being only frozen fruit-water.  Sorbet, then, is used as a synonym for Italian ice.

And, finally, we have shrub.

No, not that kind of shrub.

The Arabic verb shariba also gives rise to shrub, a “prepared drink made with the juice of orange or lemon (or other acid fruit), sugar, and rum (or other spirit)”.  Shrub is further described in an 1861 quote as a US “cordial or syrup  made with raspberry juice, with vinegar and sugar”.

And further further described in 1867 by Smyth’s Sailor’s Wordbook as a “vile drugged drink prepared for seamen who frequent the filthy purlieus of Calcutta”. (Well, how else would you expect something to be described in a sailor’s wordbook?)

Shrub. By "prepared drink", let us assume the OED means "cocktail". Or "vile drugged drink".

So now we see the Middle Eastern base for a whole family of sweet things: syrup, sherbet, sorbet, and shrub.  And we’ve thrown in a little molasses for our health. Cheers!



Filed under Uncategorized


Our story today begins with Old English geard, which meant “fence, dwelling, house, region”.  These meanings might reflect different ‘levels’ of things, but what they have in common in a sense of “enclosure”.

This sense of the ‘marked-off’ is perhaps made more clear by three near-relatives of geard: Old Saxon gard “enclosure, field, dwelling”, Old Norse garth “a small piece of enclosed ground”, and Old High German gart “circle, ring”.  In fact, all of these words most likely descend from the same Germanic root, a root that also gives rise to the verb to gird, as in to “encircle with a belt”  (or girdle), and to the noun girth (that what needs to be girded).

Well, they looked like they should speak Old English.

This Germanic “gard” root was borrowed by Russian (and other Slavic languages), and we see it in the names of towns, such as Petrograd and Novgorod.

During the Old English period, this sense of enclosure is transferred from the dwelling to the small-ish “uncultivated area attached to a house or other building or enclosed by it”.  So, the concept of “yard” starts with a notion of an uncultivated spot next to your house, and then it grows into something a little less uncultivated.

An Old English version of Genesis talks about godlice geardas ("goodly yards"). I think this must be the place it was referring to.

Old English geard turns up in some surprising places.

Like Middle Earth.

Tolkien's Middle Earth. Tolkien worked for the OED, writing entries for words, most of them falling between "waggle" and "warlock".

J.R.R. Tolkien adapted the name Middle Earth from the Old English Middangeard (which is also found as Middenerd), all of which refer to the world in which we humans live, a world that sits “as a middle region between heaven and hell”.

The name Midgard, one of the nine worlds in Norse mythology, developed independently in Scandinavian (another member of the Germanic family).  Midgard, like Middangeard, is also the realm inhabited by humans.  What this suggests is an ancient desire to understand the place of humans in the world, a place that appears to be both above and below.

There's Midgard, down on the left.

Earth is an old word.  Different forms of the same ‘word’ are all over Indo-European languages (take for examples Dutch ertha, Greek ἔρα-, and Swedish jord).  The Old English form was  eorðe, which I think sounds suspiciously like the Arabic ardð “earth” (which is an old word in Arabic too).  This is a tantalizing similarity, perhaps evidentiary of the hypothetical connection between Indo-European languages and Semitic ones.  Which would mean that earth is really, really old.

The earth is approximately 4.56 billion years old. The word earth . . . not so much, but it still pretty old.

The OED definition of earth reads, “the ground considered simply as a surface on which human beings, animals, and things associated with them rest or move”.


Back to the yard.

Geard shows up in orchard (it was orgeard) and vineyard (originally wingeard).

The Old English word for “wine” was win, which is related to Latin vinum, Greek οἶνος, Albanian vēne, (all of these from the Armenian gini) and perhaps even the Arabic & Ethiopic word wain, the Hebrew yayin, and the Assyrian înu.  If indeed the former group of Indo-European words are related to the latter group of Semitic languages, then the word for “wine” is as old as earth.

A Paso Robles Vineyard in California. My favorite wine is made here.

Really, a vineyard is a very specific kind of orchard, and the two terms do share a root, so to speak.

Orchard has been around a long time, too.  Geard is there in the second half, suggesting a greater meaning of some sort of (un)cultivation near a dwelling.  And for the first half?

Two possibilities here.  It could be that “or” is from classical Latin hortus “garden” (from whence we get horticulture).  I guess that would make orchard originally mean something like a “garden close to the house”.

Also from hortus is Latin co-hors, used to indicate an “enclosure, yard, pen for cattle and poultry”, which is where the word cohort comes from.

An old-fashioned cohort. In a courtyard.

(Latin Co-hors also gives rise to the word court, which, from about 1300 to 1700, was used as a synonym of yard. So the term courtyard is actually redundant.)

Or, it could be that the “or” in “orchard” is a variant of wort, a Germanic root meaning “plant, herb, vegetable for food or medicine” (as in St John’s Wort or liverwort). Which once again would give orchard the meaning “plants close to the house”.

Either way, orchard begins its denotational life as a name for a “garden (frequently enclosed) especially for herbs and fruit trees” and then expands over time to cover a larger “area of land given over to the cultivation of fruit trees”.

Or nut trees. This is an almond orchard.

Wort-yard is a term found scattered throughout the history of English, at least until the late 14th c.  The OED cites the story of Ahab in a 1382 translation of the Bible, which makes a distinction between a “vine-yard” and a “wort-yard”.

As time goes on, yard extends to mean the “grounds of a building”, first as an inn-yard and later as a churchyard, graveyard, prison-yard, Harvard yard, etc.

I grew up with two cemeteries almost literally in my backyard. This is one of them.

Yard also extends its domestic use as well, reaching out to encompass other areas near the house, such as the farmyard, the barnyard, and even specific parts of those areas (we have the poultry yard as well as its less formal cousin, the chicken yard).

And then the extension goes on to places where things are made or stored, like brickyards and shipyards and train-yards.

These days, for North American speakers, a yard is basically the stretch grass around your house, which may or may not include a garden and/or an attempt at landscaping.

I only wish this was my backyard.

Continuing on this path, let’s take a quick look at garden, which comes to us from French gardin, which is from the Latin gardimum, which came from . . . oh, wait, Germanic gard.  That means English borrowed a word from another language that is a descendant of a word borrowed from Germanic that has the same root as a word English already used for something similar.


Garden seems to have come in to English with more of a “cultivated” or “planned” sense about it than yard.  A 1577 quote from the OED explains, “I comprehend therefore vnder the word ‘garden’, all such grounds as are wrought with the spade by mans hand”.

I think we all know how “wrought with the spade” gardens can get.

Butchart Gardens in Victoria. Beautifully wrought.

Americans brought about the use of door-yard for a little garden “about the door of a house”, which in Scotland would be called a kale-yard (think “cabbage garden”), and which might otherwise be called a kitchen-garden or cottage-garden.

We also have kindergarten.  Where we grow kids.

My latest quest: to bring back from English obscurity the phrase, "everything in the garden is lovely" to mean "all is well". Go forth and use it.

Oddly, neither of the terms grass-yard or green-yard refer to spaces dedicated to growing grass, but instead to “grassed enclosures” in which “hounds are exercised” (otherwise known as a dog walk or dog trot).

What should we take away from this yard-garden-orchard-court-wort journey?  Well, all I know is that our tamed outdoor spaces have been important to us for a while.  An English will, compiled in York in 1524, describes a family’s inheritance as, “A litile howse with a yerde”.

Isn’t that what we all want?

A litile howse with a yerde.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Blood sausage

Let me begin with a couple of key points.  1) Sausage, as one prosaic wikipedia author put it, “is the logical outcome of efficient butchery”, 2) the type of sausage I am focusing on here is the kind that is made with pig’s blood, and 3) sometimes ignorance is indeed bliss.

I think we all “know” that sausages (and there are over 250 recognized kinds out there) are made from animal . . .  bits.  The herbs and spices used to make sausage are really in there to cover up the fact that these ‘bits’ may not be the most appetizing pieces of the pig (or cow or chicken).  Although there is something to be said for using as much of a butchered animal as possible –  it just seems less wasteful and somehow more respectful – let’s be honest about it, there are just some things about sausage we’d rather not dwell on.

I might not be able to eat these anymore.

What we’re going to be talking about today is a specific type of sausage that makes use of the butchered pig’s blood.  Yes, it’s blood sausage, also known as blood pudding.

And I'm not eating that.

Although blood sausage and blood pudding might sound like they refer to totally different culinary animals (yikes, can you imagine?), the latter does also refer to a sausage.

Pudding is an early English term for sausage.  One etymological theory has pudding coming from the Anglo-Norman bodeyn or bodin “intestines, entrails”, which would mean etymological kinship with French boudin (which meant “blood sausage” in Old and Middle French and now is used as a slang term for the “belly or stomach of a person”).

It has been suggested that the French boudin could be a cousin of the archaic Italian term boldone “blood sausage” and possible a descendant of the classical Latin botulus “sausage” (also the progenitor of the word botulism).  Nice.

I'd need more wine than that. . .

Another theory has pudding as native, developing from Old English puduc, which refers to a “wen” or “swelling”.  Wen, as I’m sure you will be thrilled to learn, means “a lump or protuberance on the body, a knot, bunch, wart”.  We get from there to here by a progression of associations, puduc “lump or swelling” to poud “boil or ulcer” to a word that starts to mean something akin to contemporary pudge.  (Something similar exists in Dutch, as the regional term poddick means a “thick soft mass”, a “kind of pudding”, and a “shortish fat person”.)

Even earlier than its appearance in print as a term for “blood sausage”, pudding is attested as a surname. Such as Agelword Pudding (1100) and Willelmus Pudding (1202).  Aw.  Sad.

Choose your favorite (or your least unappetizing) etymological route, and by 1287 we see pudding in print to mean a “stuffed entrail”.  We get puddings of milk, eggs, and flour (in other words, “not sausage”) in the mid-1500s and these could be sweet or savory.  It’s not until the early 20th c that we see pudding veering toward the ‘sweet side’ and staying there.

Definitely not eating that.

The OED definition notes that, sausage, which originally means a “quantity of finely chopped pork, beef, or other meat, spiced and flavored, enclosed in a short length of the intestine of some animal, so as to form a cylindrical roll” extends in the 19th c to mean

a preparation of comminuted beef, veal, pork, mutton, or a mixture of these, either fresh, salted, pickled, smoked or cured, with salt, spices, flour (sometimes with the addition of fats, blood, sugar, vegetables, etc.), stuffed into a container made from an intestine, stomach, bladder, or other animal tissue.

Sausages can be classified as dry sausage (a cured product)

A dry sausage.

or fresh sausage (also known as wet sausage).

Various wet sausages (you already know not to google that, right?).

Other names for sausage?  Saucister (obsolete), sauserling (a little one?), gigot (obsolete, but from a word meaning a “little piece”), gut-pudding (no beating around the bush there), snag (which as a noun has also meant a “stump”, a “sloe”, and a “snail”, along with a “sausage”, the latter being a colloquial Australian term), and (my favorite) smallgoods.

We’ll have to spend more time with the sausage names later on.

For now, we must narrow the field down to blood sausages specifically.  Other terms for blood sausage are black pudding (named for its color), blacking (also a color issue), black pot (pot being an old British term for pudding – still occasionally heard in southwest England), blooding (named for its, well, you get that one), blutwurst (don’t let the German fool you), boudin (now the French are trying to fool you), and bag of mystery (oh, would that it were).

Um . . .  no

Um . . . no

Boudin you may recognize from French cuisine; in the US, you see it linked to Cajun cuisine.  You have boudin noir (yep, “black pudding”) and boudin blanc (“white pudding”), which, New Orleans style, is made with pork bits (including the liver) and rice, but no blood.

Pretty picture. Still not eating it.

The Linguistic Atlas interviewers asked people about blood sausage and found a lot of terms that we see above, such as blood pudding and black pudding along with a lot of terms we saw for headcheese (such as scrapple, ponhaus, sousemeat, and press meat),which reinforces this idea that, for either of these dishes, what we’re talking about is using all we can of the hog we killed.  A couple of fun Atlas answers to round us out: shakey, rice pudding (I’m thinking boudin blanc here), Dutch mush, endings, haslet pudding, horsepon (don’t think about it, just keep moving), napoleon pudding, skits, and vinkey (I’ve no idea what these last two are about).

Also fun to note that one Atlas speaker commented that blood pudding was served as a “relish”, while a couple of people used adjectives (that researchers count as “irrelevant” since they don’t answer the question, but, hey, they’re still interesting) like strong, tainted, and rank.

Nice try.

And there you have it.  Happy Valentine’s Day.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized


In general, textile weaving is based on the idea of moving the weft (threads that run horizontally) over and under the warp (threads strung vertically).

Weft and warp are both old Germanic words, wound together in weaving since the beginning of the language.  Over time, the word weft, which has almost always had woof as a synonym (perhaps stemming from a variation in pronunciation), expanded meaning-wise into other areas of textiles (as the name for fibers and for use in basket weaving) and giving rise to waft.  

Waft, as a noun, started as a word for a “bad taste” and moved to be “an odor floating in the air”, resting finally on the designation “a current or breeze”. The verb to waft is a back-formation (that means it was taken from a longer word, in this case wafter “to watch” from German) used initially for directing sea-travel and eventually merging with its noun-side to mean “go back and forth”.

Warp has had perhaps a more glamorous life.  Inspired by the bending over and under the weft, warp takes on meaning as an adjective “bent, contoured” and eventually achieves fame as a portion of a favorite sci-fi concept: warp speed.  Previously used only for the fastest of weavers, warp speed was popularized in the 1960s by Star Trek, to mean (and I have to quote the OED here), “a (hypothetical) faster-than-light speed, attained by a spaceship with a propulsion mechanism capable of manipulating space-time”.  Along with its sibling, warp factor “the degree to which one achieves warp speed”, warp speed has traveled a journey that started on the loom and now extends to countless crossings of outer space.

Not a view from a loom.


The word velvet is descended from the Latin vill-us “shaggy hair”, which makes sense given the fact that its surface is really a fine pile. To make velvet, a weaver intertwines two sets of warps and wefts on a special loom, using a double-weaving technique, a technique developed in medieval Kashmir.  The double-layered fabric is then separated into two ‘sheets’, as the threads are split down the middle, leaving each side with a nap facing inward.

After the cutting, each side is a length of velvet that can be wound into a separate roll.

Traditional velvets are made of silk.  That, and the fact that the weaving and cutting was all done by hand, explains why (before industrialization created mechanical looms) velvet was affordable only to the wealthiest of the wealthy.  And perhaps even then, only for special occasions.  In 1399, King Richard II decreed that, upon his death, his body should be wrapped in velveto.

Velvet. Not Velveeta.

If the Kashmir weavers were making velvet in the early 14th c, it didn’t take long for the term (and the fabric) to make it into English language and culture.  The first apprearance in print of velvet is in 1320,  with a mention of a “couerchief de veluett”.

300 years later, we see velvet being used figuratively, as in “Thou speakst as true as veluet” as well as in the phrase to be on velvet, which means “to be in an easy or advantageous position”.

We see the latter being used in early America. The OED contains a quote from Thomas Anburey’s 1789 letters (collectively titled Travels Through the Interior Parts of America), which state, “Therefore, only tell General Phillips ‘that on that day I fought upon velvet’”.

May we all stand on velvet.

Speaking of . . . crushed velvet is created after the velvet is cut, at the same time that dye is added.  Wet velvet is twisted during the dyeing  process, creating the look of crushed pile.

Crushed velvet

What if your velvet is not made out of silk, but of cotton?

Well, then you have an important part of a children’s classic, velveteen.  The fact that one could use cotton in place of silk made this velvet-esque fabric usable for things like stuffed animals.

Velveteen Rabbit

Velveteen was (officially) born the same year that the United States was, as it first appears in print in a patent for Wollstoneholme’s “new kind of goods called velvateans, being an improvement on velveretts”.

(Velverett must have been a coarser kind of pile woven from cotton that, apparently, wasn’t able to make the grade.)

Velveteen was also used (briefly, in the mid-1800s) as a more general term for “trousers or knickerbockers made of velveteen”.

Which brings us to velour.

Velour. Maybe if you love them enough, they could turn into real pants.

Velour, unlike velvet and velveteen, is a knit fabric.  Recall that weaving is accomplished by running one thread across a series of others in an over and under motion.  Knit fabrics are comprised of a series of loops, the new row picking up loops from the row that preceded it.  (Apparently NASA has made fabrics in which the threads are ‘woven’ from three directions instead of just two, giving them a triangular grain instead of one that is square.  Possibly these fabrics are in anticipation of warp-speed design requirements.)

Velour is the French word for “velvet” (in French it is spelled “velours”, yet still pronounced “velour”) and, in English (at first) velour was velvet.  In the 16th c, we see velour (or vellure) as a term for the velvet pad used by hat-makers to smooth the surface of their wares.

And yet velour does not retain its ‘synonym status’ with velvet in English.  Eventually, in what can only be called a velvet-making-like process, the two words are cut apart and their now-separate meanings wound upon their separate rolls. Velour now denotes the knitted fabric made with cotton thread or with a blend of cotton and synthetic fibers, often with spandex added for extra stretch.

Velvet made from silk retains its noble aura (the real thing can cost 100s of dollars per yard), velour is relegated to sweatpants and bathrobes (and is $4.95 a yard).

Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “A throne is only a bench covered in velvet”.  Well, yes, but that’s what thousands of dollars worth of fabric can do for you.

How 'bout that? A throne really is just a bench covered in velvet (and gold statues).

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Apple pie

See these bed linens?

They are in apple pie order.  First in print in 1780, this was still a pretty common phrase as recently as the 1960s, used to describe something that is “neat” and in “perfect order”.

It may be that this phrase originated from the French cap-a-pie (“head to foot”).  Knights dressed in full armor were thus armed cap-a-pie.

It may be that apple pie order comes from the French nappe plie (“folded linen”).  See above.

The apply pie fold-y neatness could also be related to an apple pie bed, a bed in which the sheets have been folded up so the would-be sleeper can’t get in them (in other words, a short-sheeted bed).  Apparently, muses the OED, English overlooks the fact that the French “linens” in question were tablecloths, not bedsheets.

Fine. These are in apple pie order too.

An apple pie plant is a member of the Hirsutum family, so called because of the fragrance released when you rub the leaves together.

Apple pie plant (E. Hirsutum). Also called a codlins-and-cream, a codlin being a type of apple or the name for what once was mistaken for a beaver scrotum. Honestly, I couldn't have made that up if I tried.

In addition to getting your affairs in apple pie order, teasing your friends with an apple pie bed, and wildflower-watching for an apple pie plant, you can also apple-up.  To apple up is to, as DARE so nicely puts it, “curry favor” with someone.  Interestingly and (probably absolutely) coincidentally, to applease someone means something similar (“to gratify, to satisfy”), though this verb is considered obsolete (last sighted in print in 1771).

To apple up, then, might be more along the lines of to apple polish (“to attempt to win favor by flattery or fawn”).  Perhaps it is related to the idea of giving a teacher an apple (although that apple~teacher thing has taken on a life of its own, no?).  Perhaps, then, apple up simply means “to be nice as pie”.

One last bit about pies. . .

Several Atlas speakers made a distinction between a hog apple pie and a horse apple pie.  Know what that means?

A hog apple pie is made with hog apples, which are mayapples, which are very hard and tart (sometimes they are even referred to as “wild lemons”).

Mayapple. See how the fruit looks like a lemon?

So, hog apples sound a little like what I grew up calling a crabapple.  

A horse apple pie, on the other hand, is made with cultivated apples which are generally less hard and much more ‘mellow’ tasting (DARE features a quote from 1844 in which someone claims a taste to be “meller as a hos-apple”).

These are cultivated apples. In apple pie order.

In case you were wondering, American as apple pie?  It was first in seen in a print advertisement for men’s suits in 1924 (talk about staying-power in advertising!).

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized


Don't cry kittens! We'll give you some cobbler...

Cobbler comes from the cobble-the-verb, which means “to repair roughly or clumsily” and “to patch”, appearing in writing for the first time in 1496.  Cobbling becomes linked to the mending of shoes specifically by the middle of the next century.

As time passes, cobbling and cobbler are linked to various other things (such as stones and beverages and pies).

In 1819, cobbler was the name for a cocktail made of wine, sugar, lemon, and crushed ice, a drink to be, as the Oxford English Dictionary describes, “imbibed through a straw or other tube”. (Have I mentioned how much I love the OED?)

The sangria-esque cobbler is most likely an American abbreviation of the British term cobbler’s punch, a concoction so named after its reputed ability to “patch up” its drinkers.

Not that kind of cobbler. Shame on you, kittens!

The use of cobbler for a deep-dish pie with a thick crust and fruit filling is also American, first used this way in print in 1859.  A cobbler-type pie (one with no bottom crust and a biscuit-like top) is very possibly the result of early English settlers having plenty of fruit for a pie filling, but not very much wheat flour for crust-making.

When the Linguistic Atlas interviewers asked people about ‘cobblers’, they collected dozens of terms for this deep-dish dessert, frequently made with apples or peaches.

Ice cream? Don't get greedy, kittens.

Several of the terms collected had something to do with custard or pudding.  That may seem odd, but makes sense if you consider the fact that the earliest New World dessert fare was probably more like a traditional British pudding or custard than it was a contemporary American pie.

The word custard is probably a “perverted form of crustade”.  Crustade is from the French croustade (a rich pie enclosed in a crust) and in English was originally used for a kind of “open pie containing pieces of meat or fruit” that was thickened with milk and eggs and seasoned or sweetened with spices.  These days, custards are generally sweet, made of milk and eggs and can be of either a firm or more liquid-y consistency.  Throw some diced apples or peaches in there an you have something akin to an early cobbler.

Contemporary British "spotted dick pudding" with custard sauce. The 'spots' are raisins; the 'dick' part is either a variant of 'dough', 'dog', or the German word for "thick". At any rate, not a good idea to google it with youngsters around.

A lot of the Atlas interviewees talked about an apple pandowdy (also known as an apple dowdy).

Pandowdy is of unknown origin (in fact, the phrase apple dowdy predates pandowdy in print), though, it could be that it is related to the English provincial expression pandoudle, a term used for a custard in the Somerset area.

According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, a dowdy is a deep pie that, after being partially baked, is taken out of the oven and ‘dowdied’, which means that you take a knife and chop up the crust a little and the mix the bits in with the filling.  Add a little more liquid, put it back in the oven and you have a pandowdy.

Because this procedure causes the crust to fall in places, this preparation can also be used to create an apple slump, apple grunt, or apple buckle.

All of these terms – dowdy, slump, grunt, and buckle – are from New England. Slump and buckle refer to the hilly nature of the dowdied crust and, legend has it, grunt refers to the noise the dish makes while cooking.  Yeah, I know.  I couldn’t find an alternate explanation.

Della Lute’s 1936 semi-autobiographical work, The Country Kitchen, describes the dowdy as “not a dumpling, a pudding or a pie – deep-dish or otherwise. It is just a dowdy – sort of common, homely . . . but it has character”.

Seems more "homey" than "homely", don't you think?

The Atlas speakers also gave apple bird’s nest (or just bird’s nest or crow’s nest or even bird’s nest pudding) as another name for cobbler.  DARE describes a bird’s nest as a pudding made with apples, having a biscuit dough crust and a sauce for serving. I don’t think we can ignore the similarities between a dish like this and 1) a British ‘pud’ or 2) bread pudding.  Especially when you add the notion of a sauce.

DARE explains that the bird’s nest is called apfle kuchen (or apple kuchen) in areas influenced by early German settlers.  We see additional German influence on cobbler-esque-terms, such as the apee cake among the Pennsylvania Deutsch which is called Dutch cake by the rest of Pennsylvania. (We just aren’t ever going to get that ‘Dutch~Deutsch is really German’ thing straight.)

Sticking with German for a minute, let’s consider the streusel topping of the crisp or crumble, two names for a cobbler topped with an oatmeal and brown sugar mixture instead of biscuit or cake-like dough, which makes the apple crisp (or crumble) the American version of the German Apfel Streuselkuchen.

A streusel-topped apple crisp

Another cobbler-term with strong regional associations is the sonker (or sanker or zonker), a term found in the southern Appalachian mountains and carried over into the Ozarks.  DARE gives its etymology as uncertain, perhaps from the verb sanko, which means “to loaf, to be idle, to stroll” (you can “sanko along” or “sanko around”, as long as you’re taking your time).

I have one last family of cobbler names to share with you.  And they are ‘name’ names.  Apple betty and apple brown betty are probably the two most famous names in cobbler-terminology, both of these turning up in “Yankee” cookbooks in the early to mid-1900s.  The recipes for these cobblers have a topping made of breadcrumbs (as in stale French bread breadcrumbs) along with the usual sugar, (maybe) cinnamon, and butter.

An apple betty

The common understanding of a betty seems to be as a baked pudding containing apples and topped with a breadcrumb mixture.  This would make the apple betty the English version of the French apple charlette, which becomes in America the apple charlotte.  The charlotte (also called a charlotte brown) is “a dish of apple marmalade covered in crumbs of toasted bread”, and appears quite early in American English print, in a 1796 New York Magazine.

An apple charlotte

Along with apple betty and apple charlotte, the Atlas responses contain apple elizabeth (perhaps a more formal version of the betty?), apple john, apple jonathan, apple jack, and apple joe.  All of these ‘name’ names (except for apple jack) could be heard in New England or at least in the Northern Atlantic states.

An apple john

Apple jack, which is an British English dialect term for an apple turnover, was found in the south, and was especially common in North Carolina.  Apple jack is like it’s cousin cobbler in that it is a term also used as a name for an alcoholic beverage (in this case a colonial drink also referred to as black jack, a homemade apple brandy).  Of course, there is now a plethora of contemporary “apple jack” beverages, containing everything from Jack Daniels and apple juice to apple brandy and grenadine.

A set of apple jacks

Let’s hope that the apple jack dessert was the inspiration for the Kellogg’s cereal of the same name, and not the apple-based libation.

There were other neat cobbler-names from the Atlas interviews, such as apple governor, bird’s jonathan, family pie, chunk pie, dish pan dowdy, farmer’s pie, floating islands, and cut and come pie.  The popularity of this kind of deep-dish (apple) dessert has resulted in a large number of names.  Some are regional, some are inter-cultural, and some are just plain fun.

Guess what I made?

You may call it an excuse to make a cobbler, but I call it research.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Pie versus Cobbler

Though I am definitely not one to expect (or want) a single, static definition of anything I consider to be a cultural artifact, I figured that, prior to taking a look at regional terms for cobbler, it would be handy to have a couple of working definitions.


After undertaking what can only be called a rigorous survey of recipes and definitions for both pie and cobbler, I will attempt to draw a distinction between the two.


Pies are baked in shallower dishes than cobblers.  Pies have a pastry crust lining the bottom of the pan and usually another layer of pastry crust on top, with crimped edges all the way around, holding the top and bottom together.

Pies are served in slices.

Slice of pie

Cobblers are baked in deeper dishes.  Cobblers are often made with no bottom crust and a thick, biscuit-style crust on top.  (I realize there are many, many variations on this theme and we will explore several of them in the upcoming cobbler post.)

The biscuit-esque crust gives the top of the thing a cobbled-street appearance, hence (perhaps?) the name.

Cobblers are served in bowls.

Serving of cobbler. With ice cream.

We’ll be checking in on cobbler terms and variations soon. After I do some hands-on research.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized