Cephalogenic

or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

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Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, January 23, 2006

What Rot

I was writing something earlier and used the Yiddish word "tsimmes", which I knew full well meant "a fuss: a to-do", and then I started wondering if it meant something else, too; Yiddish has a particularly vivid vocabulary of words for emotional states, quite a few of which seem to be slangy adaptations of other words, and I figured that might be the case with this one, too. And it is--boy howdy, is it. A tsimmes (or tzimmes) originally meant a slow-cooked stew of some sort; maybe a meat stew, maybe one of vegetables, maybe one with a lot of fruit in it. (Here's a recipe that's heavy on the fruit: here's another that's essentially a beef brisket cooked with prunes and vegetables.)

It seems a little odd (but only a little, really) that a word for stew came to mean a word to a hubbub: they're both, after all, collections of random things cheek by jowl. Thinking about this, naturally, got me to thinking about other such words for stews and mixtures. Their history suggests that a stew was once a rather questionable culinary endeavour: presumably a stew was what was made of the near-decomposed leftovers of other meals.

"Slumgullion" sounds nasty, doesn't it? It's just a thin stew, but Answers.com suggests it comes from a pair of Gaelic words that combined means, essentially, "pit of mud and filth", which does not speak well for the cook and her ingredients.

"Olla podrida" is one of my favourites. In English, it means merely "a spicy stew" or, metaphorically, "miscellany": a thoroughly harmless word. Its original Spanish is "olla", a sort of cooking pot, and "podrida", which is derived from the Latin "putridus", which means exactly what it looks like; "olla podrida" is, in other words, "rot-pot", not something you'd put in your mouth unless you had no choice.

"Potpourri" is another innocuous, even pleasant word; in English, it's a mixture of dried flowers and aromatics used to perfume the air, or, again metaphorically, a collection of (usually unlike) things. But guess what? It's a literal French translation of "olla podrida".

2 Comments:

Blogger Tony Pius said...

Does "goulash" qualify, even though it usually can be contained by a plate without recourse to a bowl? The etymology is pretty straightforward: 'from Hungarian gulyashus, from gulyas "herdsman" + hus "meat." In Hung., "beef or lamb soup made by herdsmen while pasturing."' (etymonline.com)

It gets used in much the same way as your example "stew = jumble" words. Plus, it's got a specific use in bridge: when players are dealt cards, sort their hands, and then toss them back into the middle and the cards are redealt three at a time causing wacky suit distribution, that's a goulash.

Monday, January 23, 2006 2:27:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Oh, I think "goulash" definitely qualifies. (I love the stuff--whoever thought of tossing sour cream into beef stew is a genius--but I can also never think of the word without thinking of some forgotten British comedy that included the riposte, to a character who said she was making goulash, "Yes, lashings of goo.")

If we're going that far afield, we may as well also include "hash", which means not only a chopped-meat-and-vegetable dish--The Joy of Cooking insists that, stewlike, it has gravy, unlike any hash I've ever eaten--but also "a mess: a bungle". (The word comes from French "hacher", "to chop up", which according to Answers.com originally stems from a Germanic word meaning a kind of axe, a word which also, through French, gave us "hatchet".)

Monday, January 23, 2006 8:02:00 PM  

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