Linguistic Thanksgiving: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Foods
Thanksgiving is the most American of all holidays. Built on a legacy of colonialism in the form of a historical feast held by Pilgrims and Native Americans in the early 17th century, it’s now a celebration of food above all else. And what strange food it is! A “traditional” Thanksgiving feast has foods Americans almost never eat during the other 364 days of the year. Were these foods actually eaten at the first Thanksgiving, and how American are they really? And, to add to the complexity, where did all these food names come from? It’s time for a dive into food etymology.
Food etymology can be a pretty tricky thing. Some words are easy to trace to their origins, while others have a murky past. Diving into these histories reveals a lot, though. You can discover the evolution of certain dishes, the regional divides of the language and more. Buckle in (or perhaps unbuckle) for a linguistic Thanksgiving.
The Food Etymology Of Thanksgiving Favorites
We’ll start at the very center of the table with the cornucopia. The history of this wicker cone filled with food goes back to the Greeks, which makes sense because it’s a Greek word: cornū “horn” and cōpia “abundance,” which translates to “horn of plenty.” The origins of the cornucopia come from Greek mythology. In one story, the god Zeus ripped the horn off a she-goat, and the horn began to fill with a never-ending supply of nourishment.
In the millennia since, the cornucopia has been a lasting symbol of the harvest, and Thanksgiving is, in many ways, about harvest season. There’s no evidence of there being a cornucopia at the original Thanksgiving, but it’s been a centerpiece on many tables since then.
Turkeys are indigenous to North America, and so are a genuinely American main course for Thanksgiving dinner. You may have heard Benjamin Franklin even rallied for the turkey to become the United States’ national bird, though that’s not entirely true (he did like turkeys’ “moral character” though). Sadly, there’s no knowing whether there was turkey at the first Thanksgiving, though “wild fowl” was reported and could have referred to turkey. But it wasn’t until early colonist William Bradford’s journals were published in the 19th century that, inspired by Bradford’s stories about turkey hunting, Americans made the turkey the official bird of Thanksgiving.
The word “turkey,” however, is less American. The leading theory is that it’s named after the country of Turkey, which hundreds of years ago sold wild fowl from West Africa that became called “turkey cocks,” which was later shortened to just “turkeys.” When colonists first went to the Americas, they saw the local birds and erroneously thought they too were turkeys. Today, the original turkeys are called guinea fowl, and turkeys are, as you can guess, turkeys. To add to the confusion, the Turks, seeing these new turkeys were not actually Turkish, called them hindi, because they thought they were from India. All together, it’s pretty confusing.
Stuffing And Dressing
Thanksgiving side dishes are a contentious issue — sorry, by the way, if we excluded your favorites — and the biggest linguistic divide of the season is stuffing and dressing. The two are very similar; they’re a mishmash of ingredients. The only real technical difference between them is how they’re cooked: stuffing is cooked inside the turkey, but dressing is cooked in a separate pan. The real difference in what they’re called, however, is geographic.
The general breakdown in the United States is that the north calls it “stuffing” and the south calls it “dressing.” In defense of the north’s position, “stuffing” has been around much longer, going back to the Romans. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the English started making “dressing” instead, perhaps because “stuffing” was too vulgar for their Victorian sensibilities. This also means the first Thanksgiving would’ve definitely had stuffing, not dressing, though there’s really no evidence of this dish at all. Either way, there’s not much difference between the two, but Americans love arguing over what something is rightly called.
Whether you prefer sweet potatoes or regular ones, they’re an extraordinarily healthy addition to your meal. Potatoes are possibly the most important crop to have ever existed, because the nutrients in potatoes are enough to keep humans alive. For the record, though, neither kind of potato was at the first Thanksgiving. Both the sweet and the regular potato do come from the Americas, but not the part that would become the United States.
The etymology of potatoes is a tad muddled. Christopher Columbus took the sweet potatoes (which originated in Central America) back to Spain in the 15th century with the Taino name batata. Decades later the Spanish made it to Peru and found the regular potato, which they called papas. When the English were introduced to these two foods, they called the sweet potatoes just “potatoes” and the regular potatoes “Virginia potatoes.” As Virginia potatoes became more popular, they dropped the “potato,” and so for a while they were both called potatoes despite being completely different. As regular potatoes became more popular, the English added “sweet” to sweet potatoes to differentiate them.
Cranberry sauce is another of those foods that would be weird at pretty much any other meal besides Thanksgiving. The cranberry is native to North America, but it wasn’t until years after the first Thanksgiving that cranberry sauce was first made because of a lack of sugar. The food etymology is pretty simple, originally called “craneberries” by Pilgrims because of their flowers’ resemblance to Sandhill Cranes.
The most iconic cranberry sauce — the one that comes in a can — is a pretty modern development. Canned cranberry sauce was created by Ocean Spray so their cranberries could be sold in some form year-round, and it was first available to the country in 1941. Despite the very purpose of its creation being its perennial longevity, it has ironically become linked to a single day.
While no one knows for certain what was served at the earliest Thanksgivings, squash may have been on the menu. Squash is a pretty broad category, encompassing summer squash, pumpkins and gourds, but most varieties of the crop originated in the Americas. They were one of the first crops to have been domesticated in all of history, and have become part of most cultures in the world.
The word itself is the only one on this list that has actual American origins. It comes from the Narragansett people — a tribe from Rhode Island — who called the plant askútasquash, which was eventually corrupted by the English into isquoutersquash and then shortened to simply “squash. “The verb “squash” came into English through Vulgar Latin and thus is completely unrelated to the food.
If pie was eaten at the first Thanksgiving, it likely would’ve been a meat pie rather than a dessert one. Turkey pies, for example, were definitely a phenomenon during the time of the Pilgrims. Pie has been ubiquitous in English society for hundreds of years, appearing all the way back in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But where the word “pie” comes from is pretty uncertain. The best food etymology theory is that it comes from the birds called magpies, which were just called “pies” before the 17th century. Why would this bird refer to a filled pastry? No one really knows for sure. The leading theory is that the preparation of pie — using lots of different ingredients — resembled the way magpies collect objects.
Depending on what kind of pie you make, there are lots of other linguistic facts to add to your meal. If you choose pecan, you’ll be using a nut whose name came from the Algonquian language, as they originated in the area that is now the southern United States. And let’s not forget the great debate as to whether it’s PEE-can, PEE-cahn, pee-KAHN or pick-AHN. Pumpkins are also native to the United States area, but the name comes from the French word pompon, meaning “large melon.” No matter what you’re serving at Thanksgiving, you’re sure to stumble into weird word stories to liven things up.
This article was originally published on November 27, 2018. It has been updated.