Word Origins – Weekend


It’s a Saturday, finally. After going through a rough week, this weekend was the most awaited one. A whole two days off from work, in which I can do what I please.

But why two days? Why not three? and why two days in succession? If you think about it, this arbitrary concept of the weekend is a very recent phenomenon. Chances are that our forefathers didn’t have the privilege of spending two days of leisure.

Because It is a Saturday, I’ve put together a short history of the weekend to get you in the right mindset to make the most of your own.

A short history of the week

Counting days in chunks of seven comes so naturally nowadays that we forget that it is unusual way to think. The 24 hour days measures the duration between one dawn and the next, the months measures the time required for the moon to wax, become full and wane; and the year counts one full cycle of the seasons. The week measures nothing – nothing happens to the sun, moon or even the stars. Therefore, it quite easy to deduce that it is a man-made interval.

Now why seven? It goes all the way back to the Babylonian calendar in the third millennium BC. And the idea of “Sabbath” to rest one day out of every seven, is well cemented in the Old Testament.

From Day off to Days off

Throughout the eighteenth century, the workweek ended on Saturday evening and Sunday was the weekly off. But even then, how can you contract fairs, Christmas celebrations, sporting events in one single day – they used to last for several days at a stretch. Since Sunday was the only holiday, a custom was born to refrain from work on Monday. This practice became so common that it was called “keeping Saint Monday“.

Saturday half-off – Factory initiative

It is unlikely that the Saturday half-holiday would have spread as rapidly as it did if it not had been for the support of factory owners. Many few workers used to come on Saturday, so their output affected anyways and they had to close down. The Saturday half-holiday was a way out, so that they come on Monday with fresh energy and perspective.

Jewish Sabbath and Two day Weekend

In 1908, the first of the weekends came. It was firstly adopted by a New England spinning mill to accommodate its Jewish workers, as they celebrated Sabbath on Saturday, unlike Christians.

Henry Ford vision for the Weekend

In 1914, the great Henry Ford reduced the working hours in his plants from nine to eight and in 1926, he announced his factories to be closed on Saturday too, as he believed that an increase in the leisure time would support an increase in consumer spending, not least on automobiles and automobile travel.

The Great Depression

The final nail in the one-and-a-half day weekend was the Great Depression which begun in 1930’s and affected economies worldwide and sent unemployment in many countries as high as 20 percent. In such an environment, shorter work days came to be regarded as a remedy for unemployment: each person would work less, but more people would have jobs.

That’s more or less where we are today. However, It is interesting that the Great Depression did not led to any further expansion on the weekend. but who says the weekend has stopped evolving? There must be something in store for weekend in the future, But I don’t plan to think about it until Monday.


Word Origins – Baguette


In honor of Bastille Day (14th July), I have decided to discuss about one of my favorite French exports: the French bread, which refers to baguette.

For those still unknown to this fact, baguette refers to a long thin loaf of French bread, which is distinguishable by its length and crisp crust. During my visit to Paris some two years ago, I found this emblem of the French cuisine at all places. Today, baguette is synonymous to bread, but that was not the case, earlier.

Linguistically, the word is often translated as “wand” (from the Latin bacillus), and before the bread appeared, it was often used to refer to a magic wand (baguette magique), as well as a glass rod (used in chemistry) or a baton (as in the expression “to lead by the baguette” or baguette de direction which means conductor’s baton). The word also has a host of other meanings, most of which imply a stick-like object: a small thin stick, often flexible (that is, a switch); an emblem of authority; a (musician’s) drumstick; a chopstick; a ramrod; various costume and architectural embellishments; an astrological table; a type of diamond cut; or (slang) legs.

As it happens, it is just possible that the original baguette did resemble a wand (as today’s does not). Still, in English, it seems most appropriate to choose the meaning of “stick”, and in fact common usage has favored this choice.

Image source: Parisiensalon

Word Origins – Ketchup

Last weekend, I was at a KFC, eating my favorite burger along with some fries and admiring the recipes of Colonel Harland Sanders (the man who founded KFC). As it was a weekend, the place was filled with people, eating their favorite delicacies and slurping their favorite Krushers.

So when I was returning the unused condiments  – ketchups, I realized how swell it is? It goes with everything; burgers, fries, wraps, wedges, chicken shotz and many other foods including our good old Indian delicacies; pakodas, samosas, paranthas and the likes.

And my curiosity gear kicked in. Why it is called a ketchup, what is the history of this word and how it came into being. Well, as I found out, answering these questions is a lot harder than posing them. But I’ll try:

The word “ketchup’ comes from keochiap (Amoy Dialect) meaning ‘brine of fish’. Yes, you read it right. The history of the word has nothing to do with tomatoes. Ketchup used to be made with something other than tomatoes. The recipe for ketchup has changed quite dramatically over time; tomatoes were only added to the recipe around 1800, and sugar even later, well after the Civil War.

In 1750-1850, ketchup meant a thin dark sauce made of fermented walnuts or sometimes fermented mushrooms. Mushroom ketchup is still produced by old-fashioned grocers. But walnut or mushroom aren’t the original ingredients of ketchup either. As Samuel Johnson tells us in his great Dictionary in 1755, English mushroom ketchups were just an attempt to imitate the taste of an earlier original sauce that came from Asia.

What was this Asian sauce? It’s clear from the earliest English recipes that the original ketchup was fish sauce, the stinky cooking sauce called nuoc mam in Vietnam, nam pla in Thailand, patis in the Philippines, and made from salting and fermenting anchovies.Fermented food products have a long tradition in Asia. The first fermented condiments were thick pastes made of fermented meat or fish used as a flavoring for dishes like roast suckling pig. As widely known in the food industry, the Chinese have a longstanding habit of celebrating their food products in their poetry, and fermented sauces appear in the Elegies of the Chu State (楚辞), dating from before 300 BC.

The fermentation process, which was used for making fish pastes, was soon applied for fermenting other products like beans, and indeed fermented soy beans and soy bean pastes (from which soy sauce developed) were a major trade commodity throughout the Chinese empire by the late Han Dynasty (i.e. by 50 BCE or 100 BCE). Over the next millenium the popularity of fermented fish and meat products drastically declined in China while fermented soy bean products became more and more popular, possibly because soy products were cheaper to make, easier to transport, and allowed for a wider variety of possible tastes.

Thus in general, fish sauce either never really developed in China, or more likely died out, and is no longer mentioned in food histories and dictionaries by the Ming dynasty. Nonetheless, in modern times fish sauce is manufactured and eaten in China

Two chinese culinary historians, H.T Huang and Naomichi Ishige, argue that during the 17th and 18th centuries, fish sauce entered China by migration, carried by Chinese sea traders from Vietnam or Cambodia up the southeastern coast of China, into Canton and Fujian provinces and the cities of Guanggong (Canton), Chaozhou (Teochew), Xiamen (Amoy) and Fuzhou.

What was this fish sauce called? In modern Chinese, in Mandarin, it’s often called yu lu 鱼露 (‘fish dew’). But yu lu is a modern name, and these Chinese sailors, traders, and settlers weren’t speaking modern Mandarin. Many of them were speakers of Southern Min, a Chinese language (or dialect) of 46 million speakers, spoken in both Fujian and Guangdong provinces as well as in Taiwan and throughout Southeast Asia (and whose variants and subdialects are called Hokkien, Taiwanese, Teochiu, and Amoy dialect, among other names).

So what was this fish sauce called in the Southern Min dialect in the 18th century? It turns out it was called something like “ke-tchup”, “ge-tchup”, or “kue-chiap”, depending on the dialect. Here’s the entry for kôe-chiap 鲑汁 from a Southern Min to English dictionary compiled by missionaries in 1873, that gives pronunciations in various Southern Min subdialects:


The word is pronounced kôe-chiap in Quanzhou (listed above as Cn.) and kê-chiap in Zhangzhou (listed above as C.), two large Hokkien-speaking cities near Xiamen (Amoy) in Fujian province. Those of you who speak Southern Min or Cantonese dialects will recognize the last syllable of the word, chiap or tchup, as the word for ‘sauce’, written 汁 and pronounced zhi in Mandarin.

A modern (1982) dictionary, Mandarin to Southern-Min, confirms our evidence from the missionary dictionary, telling us that the first syllable 鲑 is an archaic word, pronounced “gué” in spoken Southern Min, and meaning a preserved fish. Over the years this character has changed its meaning and in modern times often means ‘salmon’.

It was James Murray, the famous editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, who wrote the OED entry for this word in the Scriptorium in his back garden in 1889.

To know more about the modern story of how tomatoes became popular in the 19th century, how they were added to ketchup, how even later the recipe changed to replace fermentation by lots of vinegar and sugar to result in a kind of sweet and sour chutney has been nicely told in Andrew Smith’s Pure Ketchup.

It is quite bizarre now to know that a condiment, made from tomatoes today, comes packaged with a green label (signalling that it is vegetarian and consumable by vegetarians) has a history which includes fermented fish pastes made from fish entrails. But that’s the way languages work.