Saturday, February 28, 2004


Salad & ketchup tales


THE word hazard comes from the Arabic al zahr that means ‘the dice’ and was used by Western Europeans to refer to the various games played with dice that they learned while in the Holy Land during the crusades. The word gradually took on the sinister shades of peril, as, right from the outset, games of dice are associated with gambling and cheating.

The Chinese invented ke-tsiap, a concoction of pickled fish and spices in the 1690s. By 1700, the popularity of this preparation had spread to Malaysia, where the British first tasted it. Around 1740, it was re-christened ketchup and it had become a part of the British staple diet. Tomatoes became a part of this sauce only in 1790 because, until then tomatoes were considered to be poisonous as they were related to Belladonna and nightshade.

The word salad can be traced to the fifteenth-century Italian word zelada meaning salty. Zelada first appeared as a dish in the festive menus of Milan. A kind of ragout, it was liquid and very salty, often flavoured with preserves, mustard and lemon and decorated with marzipan. Originally a hot preparation, it was served along with a sauce that had pickled greens in it. These green vegetables were pickled in lemon juice or vinegar. By and by, these greens came to be used in their raw form, leading to the use of more raw ingredients sprinkled with salt, vinegar and lemon juice, giving the English salad in its present form.

The word ostracise comes from the Greek ostron, meaning pottery. If the ancient Greeks thought that a person could be a threat to community life, they would hold an election. Everyone would write their votes on broken pieces of pottery (ostron) and, if the vote showed a majority, the person was ostracised.

Travel and travail are both derived from the French travailler that means ‘to work hard’. The French travailler can be traced to the Latin trepalium that was a device for torture. To today’s executive class traveller this would seem a strange derivation; but in the context of the olden times, it made sense. Travel in those times could be bitterly uncomfortable and highly dangerous. Even the word peril comes from the Latin periculum that meant ‘the danger of going forth to travel’.

Lewd is today used in the sense of unchaste or lascivious. To begin with, lewd in Old English simply referred to any unlettered person. Later, in the days of John Wycliffe, the British reformer, lewd meant anyone who was outside the church. By Chaucer’s time, lewd had begun to be used with its modern meaning, having gone through these stages of evolution: uneducated, not of the church, ignorant, rude, of the lower classes, base, vile and vulgar.


The English and French orange, Spanish naranja and Italian narancia all hail from the Sanskrit naga ranga that means, literally, ‘fatal indigestion in elephants’. Now, what does the orange have to do with elephants? As per a popular Malay fable, plenty. According to an ancient Malay fable, an elephant once saw a beautiful tree in the forest, loaded with oranges. It ate so many that its stomach burst. Years later, someone stumbled upon the poor animal’s fossilised remains which had many orange trees growing from it. The man exclaimed, "Amazing. What a naga ranga." The term stuck to the fruit and soon, the word nagaranga reached Sanskrit, which lead to its adaptation by other languages.