I have to have used that pun before, right? I can’t honestly have gotten this far without hitting that joke, have I? Anyway, I’m Jon O’Guin, here for another Kitchen Catastrophe Quick Tip. Today’s post, as noted earlier, arose out of a YouTube comment, because they say inspiration can strike anywhere, including actively raging dumpster fires.
I think I just had an idea about gravity!
The comment in question was a man pointing out that “chai” is the Urdu/Hindi word for “tea”, and therefore calling a drink a ‘chai’ tea was being linguistically redundant. I proceeded to discuss why the term ISN’T redundant over several paragraphs, because I’m that asshole in the comments section. My preferred form of debate is to engage in multi-paragraph cited discussions, with multiple allowances for potential cultural or socioeconomic biases or blindnesses compromising my position. If I’m being completely honest, I do it for the sense of moral and intellectual high ground.
Anywho, I figured I’d talk about several more of these etymological culinary transplants, and how they are or are not butchering the language they came from, because, well, as that last paragraph probably illustrated, I clearly have some complex mental issues at work.
Prescription: Take Two and Call Me in the Morning
A quick warning/paradigm construction here: whether or not a usage is correct in conversation and print comes down in many cases to whether you believe the rules of grammar are prescriptive or descriptive. This is a moderately complex conversation on its own, but it basically boils down to this:
Prescriptive rulesets DEFINE and DEMARCATE the usage of their medium, from a position of authority. Like, if a doctor says “Take one pill with every meal for the next two weeks”, that’s a prescription. It’s telling you how to use the pills CORRECTLY for the best effect. If you took all of the pills on the first day, on an empty stomach, you will probably not get better. You, in fact, will likely get sharply worse.
Morbidly and adorably depicted here.
Descriptive rulesets, on the other hand, DESCRIBE and DELINEATE the usage of their medium. They don’t say ‘You should do this or you are wrong’, they say ‘This is the way things are currently done.” Your doctor telling you “Eating less red meat with reduce your cholesterol” is an example: He’s not telling you how to do things, he’s describing how the processes work.
Let’s wrap this up: I treat the evolution of language, and therefore its rules, as descriptive. Grammar rules change over time to adapt to how the language is used now. This is important, because it means that none of these phrases or words are “wrong”. They’re the common uses, which MAKES THEM RIGHT. I’m merely pointing out that some of these words came from very wrong places.
The Magnificient Seven
Tuna Fish Sandwich
Let’s start with an easy one. This one, unlike every other example on this list, doesn’t come from cross-language redundancies, but rather from an interestingly enduring pleonasm, (that is, a tautological redundancy (which is itself a redundant phrase.) Oh god, I’m going cross-eyed.) Because, if you think about it, of course it’s a Tuna FISH sandwich, all tuna ARE fish.
Personally, I believe this one endures for 2 reasons: First, Tuna used to be called “Tunnyfish”, and maybe it’s a hold out from that. But the big thing I think that keeps it going is simple: It just sounds better. Fish and sandwich almost rhyme, so it’s more pleasing to say and hear. “Tuna Sandwich” conveys the necessary info, but “Tuna Fish Sandwich” is just more fun.
Queso is the Spanish word for cheese. “Quesadilla” literally translates to “A little cheesecake”. A quesadilla, by definition, REQUIRES cheese.
And tortillas. But I mean, aren’t they the unspoken partner of most Mexican meals?
I think this one has kept on because it’s still a very distinct loanword, and therefore it just doesn’t feel right to say “a plain quesadilla”. I also think there are just enough people who don’t think about the words involved enough to know the root meaning.
As I noted earlier, “chai” is the Hindi word for Tea. When you talk about Chai tea, what you’re really referring to is a flavor profile tied to the drink Masala Chai: “Mixed-Spice Tea”.
I think this started with a simple mistake: someone asked “what is this” decades ago, and got the answer “chai”. They, not realizing they got the answer you’d give a child or your wife when you want her to get mad, just immediately started using it. This is a recurring problem with white people, historically: not learning the local language before asking dumb questions. It’s how we get things like the Yucatán Peninsula, which, literally translated, means “I don’t know what you’re saying Peninsula”.
Home of the “Stop Poking Me, White Boy” Pyramids.
I think later some efforts were made to correct it, but ran into a problem: chai tea just sounds better than “masala tea”. They’re both sharp consonants with long vowel sounds. It’s the ‘almost rhymes’ quality from Tuna Fish Sandwich again.
Kielbasa is Polish for sausage. This is perhaps the most common form of the “I need a word, so I’m using theirs.” Lake Tahoe, for instance, translates to “Lake Lake”. While kielbasa covers multiple varieties in Poland, a fairly specific flavor profile version became popular in America, which we called “Kielbasa” or “Polish Sausage.” As such, it was basically inevitable we’d mash them together.
Chorizo is an interesting one here, because the problem doesn’t start with when the word comes to English. Chorizo is a specific type of sausage, or salchicha, in Spain. And by “specific”, I mean that Spain loves sausages, so amid the many varieties it had, it had a branch of varieties called “chorizo”, which could be sweet or spicy, smoked or fresh, and had dozens of variations from town to town. And Portugal had a similar sausage with an almost identical name. That…didn’t fully make it across the ocean. In some South American countries, chorizo just replaced salchicha in meaning ‘sausage’ . Mexico didn’t have the right ingredients, so started making its own type of chorizo.
And apparently name some of them their personal savior.
So, on the one hand, when some people say “Chorizo sausage”, they MIGHT be being redundant, based on which nation’s idea of chorizo is currently being implemented. In short, this phrase is a mess, but at least it’s not our fault.
Egg Foo Young
This one is interesting, because, it’s simultaneously not wrong, while also being completely wrong in a dumb way. See, “Egg Foo/Fu Y(o)ung” isn’t translated from anything. The dish was invented in America…to an extent. Originally, in Shangai, there was a dish called “Fu Yung Egg Slices”, where the slices were arranged like petals, because “Fu Yung” means “Hibiscus”, which is a type of FLOWER.
So, when Chinese Immigrants started making a similar dish in America, they called the resulting dish Egg Fu Yung, despite the lack of flower imagery, because Americans at the time liked their Chinese food to still have exotic names. So Egg Fu Yung is the correct term, because it was literally invented for the dish. But this marks the first time a phrase was INTENTIONALLY mistranslated, because “Screw it, it’s not like those Americans are ever going to ask what it means.”
Bistec de (___)
And our final contestant is one of my favorites in the list. In Spanish, a ‘bistec’ is a steak. As in, a large chunk of meat. So a pork chop, for instance, is a bistec de cerdo, a tuna steak is bistec de atún, so on and so forth.
Except this is one of the few examples of reverse cross-language redundancies I could find, and also contradicts itself. Because Spanish took bistec from English. And it’s just a phonetic reproduction of “beefsteak”, aka ‘a large chunk of meat from a cow.’ So bistec de atún directly translates as “Cow meat from a tuna”, bistec de cerdo is “cow meat from a pig”, and so on.
To be fair, we could potentially trick someone into thinking this is cow meat.
So while we’re riding roughshod over missed meaning, cultural nuances, and just straight up using the wrong words when we steal foreign foods, At least we’re not alone.
NEXT TIME: ALAN DOES SOMETHING WITH A FISH.