The Diner’s Dictionary – a Review
Now I do like to know the origin of words, language is interesting and the language of food tells a long and complicated story about food and our relationship with other places and cultures. I was recently sent a review copy of the Diner’s Dictionary: word origins of food and drink by John Ayto. CT and I both dived in with relish.
This second edition is a small hardback which makes it easy to handle and unlike other weightier tomes is more likely to be referred to on a regular basis. With over 2,000 entries from Abernethy biscuit to zwieback, it is full of fascinating facts and like pottage can be dipped into at will. Pottage, interestingly is the predecessor of porridge, a phonetic change from t to r creating the oaty breakfast we love so much in this household. Who knew? A brief perusal will lead you down all sorts of interesting avenues and before you know it half an hour has gone. It also makes excellent bedtime reading as proved by its strange and regular migration to CT’s bedside table. Biscuit lovers may be reassured to notice that the Alpha and Omega of this dictionary are both biscuits.
Strangely (or not), chocolate was the first word I looked up. I was not expecting to find anything I didn’t already know about this food of the gods, but I was curious to find out what sort of coverage it was given. I was gratified to see it was one of the longer entries. In fact, I did learn something. The Aztecs made their cocoa drink with cold water rather than hot. It was the Spanish who introduced the use of hot water, a practice for which I’m very grateful as I warm my hands on my mug of cocoa on chilly evenings.
For all those keen bakers out there, the words flour and flower, I learnt were once identical. “The usage goes back to the early Middle Ages. When grain was milled, the most highly valued part, the meal, was characterised as the ‘flower’, the finest portion, as contrasted with the husks or bran”. This makes perfect sense, but I’d never thought of it before.
The first word CT looked for was “oca”, one of his wacky root crops; hooray, it was there. This, he took to be a good omen. However, he very soon revised his opinion downwards as the scientific name was not included. On further perusal of the other entries, he was further disappointed to find that no plant or animal scientific names had been included anywhere. For a dictionary, he felt, this was quite a serious lack. My copy of The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, by contrast, includes scientific names of both plants and animals. The Diner’s Dictionary is also an Oxford University Press publication and we wondered if this represented a dumbing down of our great centres of learning.
With a recommended retail price of £12.99, this would make a fun and welcome addition to the food lover in your life’s Christmas stocking.