Something Saucy

by Karen Jeynes

The other day I had to pop to the grocery store for some “essentials”. These included biltong, balsamic vinegar, nutella, Coke Zero, and – because our household contains a 7 year old boy – tomato sauce. As I stood in the sauce aisle – the gravy terrain, if you will – I got to wondering about that other name for tomato sauce. Ketchup.

Although there is some debate on the origin of the word, it is fairly safe to say that ketchup comes from China. The Chinese “kôe-chiap” or “kê-chiap” was a term for a fish sauce. The term then became “kicap” in Malay, before entering English as catchup in the late 17th Century. Typical English, always playing catch up. Tomato was just one ketchup variety, with mushroom and walnut also being popular. Catsup appears to have been a linguistic innovation of Jonathan Swift’s. As a side note, in the US they have “Fancy ketchup” – which has more gravitas. Oops no, not gravitas, gravity. In order to qualify as “fancy”, ketchup has to have a higher concentration of tomato solids than “Standard” ketchup.

Drifting down the aisle, my eyes alighted on “chutney”. This sauce is another linguistic import from the East, this time from Hindi’s “chatni”, itself from the Sanskrit “caṭnī” meaning “to lick”. Yum. Here in South Africa of course we have a word I say as often as possible, with great relish: blatjang. This comes from the Malay word “belachan”, a name for a shrimp paste.  But there’s nothing fishy about blatjang, it’s just the Afrikaans word for chutney.

Sashaying on down, paste – I mean past – the soy sauce, oyster sauce, jalapeno sauce, the uniquely abbreviated BBQ sauce, fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce – which I’m happy to say was indeed originally manufactured in Worcester, England. Past the HP Sauce, not, as myth would have it, named after the Houses of Parliament, but for its originator, Harry Palmer – and briefly known as “Wilson’s gravy”, when that particular politician just couldn’t get enough of it. Past that slight linguistic peccadillo, piccalilli, which apparently was named by someone who just couldn’t stop saying pickle, it was that good. Past the mayonnaise, which came to us via the French, erm, “mayonnaise”, a corruption of “mahonaisse”, named to honour the port of Mahon.

Monkeys by Ben Cameron

Monkeys by Ben Cameron

And so to another saucy South African oddity. Monkey Gland sauce. And while there are no actual monkey testicles in the sauce, they do feature in the name. In the 1920s, a French scientist named Dr Voronoff became an overnight sensation after performing surgery to graft monkey testicle tissue onto human testicles.  It was claimed that this would rejuvenate men, and inspired Irving Berlin’s “Monkey Doodle Doo”, and the idea also made its way into a Sherlock Holmes novel. Dr Voronoff frequented the restaurant at the Savoy, where a dish was promptly named Monkey Gland Steak. One of the waiters from the Savoy, Cavaliere Bagatta, came to South Africa, and brought the dish with him – you can read the full story here.

But alas, before I could reach that condiment whose name came to us via French from the Latin “mustum” meaning “hot wine” and “ardens” meaning “hot or flaming”, store security started eyeing me strangely. I must ardently protest the treatment I received when my explanations of “I was just contemplating the linguistic origins of the condiments”, peppered with examples and explanations of what “extra virgin” really means, didn’t cut the mustard. I was asked to leave the store immediately, sans ketchup. The 7 year old was not impressed, but at least I wasn’t assaulted.

Karen Jeynes

About Karen Jeynes

Karen Jeynes (@karenjeynes) is a playwright, dramaturg, wordsmith, proponent of the Oxford comma, and collector of words. She has been known to rub her hands with girlish glee on discovering a new one. She experiences high levels of angst over misplaced apostrophes, sometimes having to have a bit of a lie down. She is perilously partial to puns. And also alliteration.


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