The fascinating origins of everyday
culinary words and phrases
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A picnic describes food taken with you on an outing and intended to be consumed out of doors. Also used for the event itself. First recorded in English in 1748 in Chesterfield's Letters to his Son, when the word was used in its original meaning of a fashionable social gathering for which everyone present brought a contribution to the food on offer. The word's earliest use in English referred to such occasions in foreign countries. It was not until the 19th century that it began to be used for an English event involving a pleasurable journey and a meal eaten outside. Entering English from the French pique-nique, its ultimate origin is uncertain although it is thought to come from the French piquer 'to pick, peck' + nique ‘nothing whatsoever’.
The word picnic is also used to mean an easy or enjoyable task. Consequently, the expression ‘no picnic’ means a difficult or unpleasant job. It dates from late in the 19th century.
A menu is a detailed list of the dishes available in a restaurant, cafe etc. First recorded in the 1830s, the word is from the French menu de repas 'list of what is served at a meal', from the Middle French adjective menu meaning 'small, detailed', from the Latin minūtus 'small'.
À la carte is a French term meaning ‘by the menu’ and is used to describe a restaurant menu offering the freedom to pick and choose from individually priced dishes. In the 19th century the word carte was used to mean a bill of fare and was used in this meaning by Thackeray in his novel Pendennis, “The carte was examined on the wall, and Fanny was asked to choose her favourite dish”. However, the word never caught on outside of its use in this expression.
Table d’hôte is a restaurant term to indicate a menu where multi-course, complete meals with limited options are charged at a fixed total price. Such menus are most often offered by hotels to their residents. Such a menu may also be called prix fixe ("fixed price"). It is the opposite of of an a la carte menu. Table d'hôte is a French phrase which literally means "host's table" and originally meant a communal table where all guests at a hotel ate together. As Table de l'hoste the phrase is first recorded in English as long ago as the early 17th century. The meaning later developed into that of a public meal served at a communal table at a fixed price. In time the shared table and stated time elements fell by the wayside to leave a whole meal at a fixed price as the only elements of a table d'hôte menu.
A restaurant is a building where meals are both purchased and consumed. Quite exquisitely, from an etymological point of view, a restaurant is a public dining room where one is - with the aid of food and drink - restored. In fact, the art of running a restaurant is officially known as restauration. The more familiar restoration (the process or act of restoring) was borrowed from the Old French word restauration.
The word restaurant was borrowed from the French restaurant which originally meant 'food that restores' and developed from the Old French restorer 'restore'. It is said that restaurant was first used in French in its modern sense of a public dining room in 1765 when a dining establishment mainly serving meat broths opened in Paris. These broths were ‘restaurants’ intended to restore flagging customers. So began restaurants as we know them today, offering a choice of dishes prepared to order. A result of the French Revolution (1789-1799) was that there was a proliferation of restaurants in France as chefs cooked in restaurants rather than for the aristocracy.
The word for an owner of a restaurant is restaurateur and not restauranteur as is often believed. This is because etymologically it means a restorer. It is first recorded in English late in the 18th century.
A bistro is a small, informal, restaurant or bar. First recorded in English as bistrot in 1922 and with the modern spelling two years later, both spellings were borrowed from French, in which language it is known from 1884. The word's origin is in Parisian slang for 'restaurant or little wineshop'. Beyond this its origin is uncertain although it has been suggested that it is derived from the Russian word bystro, meaning quickly.
A brasserie is a small, simple, generally inexpensive restaurant. Originally applied to a restaurant serving beer with food, the word is French for a brewery and comes from brasser meaning ‘to brew’.
A café is a small inexpensive restaurant serving simple food from a cup of coffee and a bun to light meals. Also frequently referred to as a coffee shop. Also written without the accent, the word is first recorded 1802 and comes directly from the French for coffee or a coffee-house, which in itself originated from the Italian for coffee, caffè. A popular slang alternative is caf.
A cafeteria is a restaurant where customers armed with a tray serve themselves with food from counters or are served at a counter prior to taking it to a table themselves. This is as opposed to a restaurant with where you order at a table and the food is brought to you. Unlike a café or restaurant, customers usually pay for their meal before consuming it. Cafeterias are often found in factories, schools and as a part of large supermarkets/malls where large amounts of food has to be dispensed in a functional manner and where speed is the number one priority.
First recorded in 1839, the word originated in the United States and came from the Mexican Spanish for a coffee-shop cafetería, formed from café (coffee) + the Spanish suffix -tería meaning a place where something is done, generally as a business. Only later did it take on its current, specific meaning.
First recorded 1930, in American English, a dinette is a small dining room. Thought to have been inspired by the earlier kitchenette, from the English dine + the suffix -ette used to form nouns.
An eatery is a diner or restaurant. First recorded in 1901, in American English. From eat+ the noun-forming suffix -ery.
A greasy spoon is an inexpensive but run-down and inferior café or restaurant that serves fried foods. This slang term originated in the US and is first recorded in 1925.
Small items of food or drinks served as part of an event are called refreshments. First recorded with this meaning in the mid 17th century, the word refreshment is from the Old French refreschement, from refrescher 'to refresh' from the prefix re- again + fresche fresh + noun-forming suffix -ment + a pluralising ‘s’.
If you have uneaten food left over at the end of a meal out you can ask to take it home in a doggy bag. The food will then be packed up for you to take back home and consume later. Such a service is commonest in restaurants that also offer a standard take-away service. It is widely believed that the term doggy bag originated as a euphemism and allowed the customer the pretence that they were taking the food home for their pet rather than for their own consumption. It is first recorded, in American English, in the 1950s.
Made from paper or cloth, napkins are used to protect a diner’s clothes and/or to wipe one’s mouth and fingers during a meal. The diminutive of the Old French word for tablecloth nape which came from the Latin for cloth or napkin, mappa which also gave rise to the word map as maps used to be drawn on cloths + Middle English diminutive suffix -kin. The words apron and nappy – an abbreviation of napkin - share a similar etymology.
A delicatessen is a shop selling prepared, ready-to-serve foods such as pates, cooked meats and cheeses as well as foreign and unusual foods. First recorded towards the end of the 19th century, the word was borrowed from the German Delikatessen, the plural of Delikatesse meaning fine food, a delicacy, from the French délicatesse from délicat 'fine, delicate' from Latin dēlicatus 'delicate'; origin of the word delicate and thought to be related to the Latin dēlicere 'entice' which is the origin of delight, delicious and delectable. The popular abbreviation ‘deli’ is first recorded 1954.
A charcuterie is a delicatessen that specialises in the sale of cold, cooked meats. From the French chair flesh + cuit cooked (as in the word biscuit). It is first recorded in English in 1858.
A banquet is a feast of food and drink requiring a lot of preparation. They generally take the form of a formal, lavish meal for many people with speeches made at the end. However, for a time, the word was also used to mean a light snack – quite the opposite of the modern-day meaning of a feast. The word itself was borrowed from the Middle French banquet, itself from the Italian banchetto, the diminutive of banco meaning bench because sitting on benches placed around a table was associated with such a meal. The word transferred from the seating to the food consumed. Banquet shares its origin with banqette, the name for a built-in against-the-wall sofa commonly used as bench seating in restaurants.
A feast is a meal with an abundance of food. The word comes from the Old French feste meaning feast, festival, ultimately from the Latin fēstus meaning festive, joyous. The words festive, festival, festivity and festoon (originally a decoration at a feast) share a similar origin.
An event that doesn’t take place at regular times is referred to as a movable feast. The phrase originates from dates in the religious calendar of the Christian church such as Easter that vary from one year to another, in contrast to immovable feasts such as Christmas Day that remain on the same day each year.
A spectre (or ghost) at the feast describes someone or something that casts a negative mood over what ought to be cheerful proceedings. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth the spectre or ghost of Banquo appeared at the feast. This expression is thought to originate from a practice in ancient Egypt of a having the coffin of a desceased person, painted with a portrait of the person within at a funeral banquet (as a warning that one day they would be like that). A slightly different version, ‘a skeleton at the feast’ is recorded in the 19th century.
The proverb enough is as good as a feast means that you do not need more than enough of anything.
A midnight feast is a secretive feast held during the night, especially by children after their parents have gone to bed! The term is first recorded in 1734.
Feast or famine refers to having either too much or too little of something.
The word is used figuratively in the expression feast your eyes which means ‘gaze upon with pleasure’.
An hors d’œuvre is a light savoury snack offered before a meal to whet the appetite. They can be served hot or cold, with cocktails or an aperitif. Examples are nuts, olives and dips with crudites (served cold) and vol-au-vents and mini pizzas (served hot). In Britain, the serving of hors d'oeuvres began late in the 19th century when they were served to customers in restaurants whilst the meal itself was being prepared. The idea soon became adopted before meals in homes. The expression is a French one, meaning 'outside the work', i.e. not a recognized course of a meal. From hors 'outside', from the Latin for outside, forīs - de 'from' -œuvre 'work', from the Latin for work, opera (origin of the musical drama) and operate. In English an ‘s’ is added at the end when the word is used in the plural but in French no ‘s’ is added.
A buffet is a meal or refreshments laid out on a table or counter from which diners serve themselves. The meal takes its name from the item of furniture called a buffet that holds dishes and table linen and stands at the side of a dining room. First recorded in 1718, the word is French but of uncertain origin. The modern meaning developed late in the 19th century.
If you put on a spread you have prepared a large meal. The term is generally used relating to a meal prepared for a special occasion.
A smorgasbord is an assortment of hot and cold savoury dishes served as a buffet. First recorded in English in the 1893, the word, like the idea, is Swedish and comes from smörgåsbord meaning ‘open sandwich table’ from smörgås 'bread and butter' + bord 'table'. It's English, figurative use to mean a variety – eg ‘what a smorgasbord of delights’ - dates from 1948.