From Cappuccino to Romaine Lettuce, Learn How Some of Your Favorite Foods Got Their Names

Join us for a delicious journey into the language of food.

Have you ever stopped to think about the origins of your morning meal? Not in the sense of where you bought the ingredients, but how its name entered the lexicon. A cup of joe, a bowl of granola, sunnyside-up eggs, and even the word "breakfast" all have intriguing backstories.  

Of course, the mystery doesn't end with breakfast. In Romaine Wasn't Built in a Day: The Delightful History of Food Language, author, medievalist, and linguist Judith Tschann spills the beans, sharing the etymologies of old and new food words. "Writing the book made me very aware that language is always changing," says Tschann. The project underscored the fact that English is a global language that's absorbed thousands of words—including food words—from hundreds of languages around the world, including Latin, Greek, Turkish, Urdu, Sanskrit, and Urdu. "Food is inseparable from culture, history, identity, and politics," she adds.

Organized into chapters on breakfast, java break, lunch, happy hour, dinner, and nightcaps, this fascinating book explores everything from quotidian dishes to far-flung comestibles. Every page feels like a journey of discovery—which we parsed here, after asking Tschann to share the origin stories of some of the food words we see and use regularly.

Coffeehouse Cappuccino

Breakfast Foods

When it comes to the etymologies of common breakfast food words, some origin stories are logical, others are convoluted, and many remain murky. 


Traced back to Latin, cappuccino in informal Italian means "friar in the order," while cappucio is the "hood" of the friar's habit. "The transfer of meaning from friar's clothes to the name of a coffee made with frothy milk seems to depend on the color of the habit," says Tschann.

This could have happened in multiple ways, with someone perhaps saying that the drink was reminiscent of a friar's clothes. Word traveled and the name stuck. "By that time, the word was simply the name of the thing, no longer calling to mind a friar in his habit. Except for word nerds—having a friar in the coffee adds to their enjoyment," Tschann says.

Cup of Joe

This name for a coffee was probably derived from the 1930s U.S. military slang term, G.I. Joe.


Your morning granola was once a trademarked name coined by W. K. Kellogg, the cereal magnate who founded his famous company in 1906.


And that favorite breakfast food called cereal? It comes from Latin cereālis, for Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. Both the goddess (who nurtured grain) and the word cereal go back to the Indo-European root ker-, meaning "to grow."

Brand Names and Beyond

Coined words can become so popular, they transcend their brand names and are used to indicate the generic item (like granola).


Jell-O is another example that fits this mold. We now use the term to refer to all kinds of gelatin desserts. "When this happens, the word may eventually come to be spelled with a lowercase letter, as with jello shots," says Tschann.

Bryan Gardner

Foods Named After People and Places

Toponyms are food words derived from a place, while eponyms are named after a person. 


That sandwich you lovingly crafted for lunch is an eponym, thanks to the 18th-century Earl of Sandwich (yep!), who supposedly piled meat between two slices of bread so he could better eat while maneuvering his cards at the poker table. While the sandwich concept dates back to medieval times, the earl became its namesake. 

The Reuben sandwich is also an eponym, possibly referencing a grocer named Reuben Kulatofsky who, in the 1920s or 1930s, heaped rye bread with corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing—interestingly, also while playing poker. Another story alludes to a "Reuben's Special" sandwich made in 1914 at Arthur Reuben's Deli in New York, which would also make it a toponym of sorts.


Time to talk tea: Darjeeling, named for the region in India where it grows, and bergamot, likely named for the northern Italian province of Bergamo, are both toponyms, while Earl Grey, probably a nod to the second Earl Grey of England, is an eponym. 


The word romaine (from the medieval French laitue romaine, or "Roman lettuce"), has a long lifeline and link to Rome. It has been grown in the Mediterranean since antiquity and in Rome since classical times, if not before. It is believed to have earned it's Roman name after it made its way to France via popes from Rome.

Foods Named After Body Parts

Yes, our anatomy is a rich source of food words.


The popular cruciferous vegetable, cabbage, takes its name from the Anglo-Norman kaboche, which means "head."


Known as "savoiardi" in Italy after the region they hail from (so, a toponym!), these cookies are, of course, light, small sponge cakes shaped like digits—which is why we refer to them as ladyfingers in English.


Several types of pasta, including orecchiette ("little ears") and capellini ("fine hair") riff on body parts, too, while others, like vermicelli ("little worms") tickle the funny bone; all slightly resemble their namesakes. "It's one thing to discover a word's etymology—in some cases its literal meaning in another language—and quite another to account for it fully. The why and how of names are often a matter of speculation," says Tschann.

Open to Interpretation

Tschann's food word research revealed "surprises and delights galore"—plus, she discovered that there are occasionally rival stories or beliefs about the origins of a word.


According to Tschann, the word barbecue probably stems from the Caribbean Arawakan word barbacoa, meaning "a wooden frame used for sleeping on, drying, smoking, or roasting food over a fire."

But there's also a popular theory that the word comes from the French barbe à queue, or "beard to tail," which is suggestive of the way the animal is spitted for roasting on an open fire. "Like many fanciful etymologies based on sound similarity, barbe à queue is amusing (unless one doesn't want to think about how a pig is spitted!)—but there's no supporting evidence for it," Tschann says.

Hand-rolled pasta strozzapreti with butternut pumpkin sauce

Olga Mazyarkina / GETTY IMAGES


The origins of the name of the pasta strozzapreti (from Italian, translating to "priest stranglers/chokers") is also open to interpretation. One account for its name points to greedy 16th-century priests who ate so much of the thick pasta they choked—a story that possibly evolved from opposition to the power of the clergy, explains Tschann.

"Part of the explanation for many amusing food words must have to do with people's love of language—of playing with words, of chortling while making up a food name to attract attention and customers, and of eaters accepting the word," Tschann says.

Word Watch

So, how does a food word officially make the leap into the everyday vernacular? "If it's printed in menus and English language blogs, cookbooks, and elsewhere, the word will likely show up in an English dictionary—and if it's in a dictionary, most would say it's 'in' the language," says Tschann.

Gaining entry, however, isn't always a cakewalk: Strozzapreti, for example, is still in lexicon limbo—it hasn't yet made its appearance in most big dictionaries.  

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