History of the world in a ketchup bottle

Stanford linguist Dan Jurafsky doesn’t just explain the origins of the word for the red sauce we slather on ‘French’ fries; he uses the global ketchup trade as evidence for a new understanding of global economic history.

Paul Sakuma/AP
Bottles of Heinz organic tomato ketchup are on display inside Costco in Mountain View, Calif.

Every once in a while I worry that I put too much store in what can be gleaned from studying word origins. After all, as Douglas Harper, creator of the Online Etymology Dictionary, notes on its home page: “Etymologies are not definitions; they’re explanations of what our words meant and how they sounded 600 or 2,000 years ago.”

But then I come across something like Dan Jurafsky’s recent book, “The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu.” The author traces the derivations of all kinds of food terms, as well as the social and historical circumstances of their transmission around the globe. 

The book had its genesis, the author explains, in two questions. The first was, Why does the label say “tomato” ketchup? Isn’t that redundant? The second, from a friend from Hong Kong, who recognized the word as Chinese, was, “How do you say ketchup in English?”

Professor Jurafsky explains that the word really does come from Chinese – or more specifically, from Hokkien, the language of southern Fujian and Taiwan. The syllable ke means “preserved fish,” and the syllable tschup means “sauce” in Hokkien and Cantonese. The original ketchup was a fish sauce, like the modern Vietnamese fish sauce nuoc mam

Chinese traders active in ports throughout Southeast Asia brought their fermentation methods, and their sauce, with them.

Other traders brought this ketchup to Europe, where the recipe evolved to fit Western tastes; that is, it lost its fish. Early recipes in England substituted mushrooms, or, at Jane Austen’s house, walnuts. A variant involving tomatoes traveled to America, where it acquired sugar, and then more sugar. “This version eventually became America’s national condiment,” Jurafsky writes, and was exported to places like Hong Kong.

So ketchup is how you say it in English, and there is at least a historical reason to specify “tomato” on the label; otherwise, who knows? It might be some of Austen’s walnut ketchup.

All this is more than culinary trivia. This whole history “offers us new insights into global economic history,” Jurafsky explains. “If you subscribe to a traditional Western model of Asian economics, China turned inward in 1450 during the Ming dynasty and became isolated and economically irrelevant....”

But, he continues, “The vast production and trade of ke-tschup (not to mention arrack [an early form of rum] and less delicious goods like textiles and porcelain) well into the eighteenth century tell a different tale.” He points to other scholarship indicating that Chinese government bans of private sea trade were often rescinded or simply skirted by wily traders, including pirates. 

“In fact, by the time British sailors brought ketchup back to England in the late seventeenth century, China was the richest nation in the world by any measure – including standard of living, life span, and per capita income – and produced the bulk of the whole world’s GNP.”

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