Ketchup / Catsup

The red stuff.

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the word “ketchup” originate? — Kana.

Good question, and I’m glad you asked it, because you’ve just reminded me that we’re out of ketchup around here.  (We seem to use the spelling “catsup” on lists at our house, but we’ll get to the various spellings in a moment.)  I also just realized that I answered this same question back in 1994, in one of my very first columns.  At three columns per week for the ensuing 15 years, that’s 2,340 columns ago, proving that I am nothing if not remarkably persistent.  Ad astra per caffeine, as we say.

OK, back to work before I become roadkill on Memory Lane.  I read a filler item in a newspaper a few years ago which cheerfully announced that salsa-in-a-jar had replaced catsup as America’s favorite condiment, but I didn’t believe it then and I still don’t.  I can’t imagine substituting salsa for catsup on the foods real Americans love, like cottage cheese.  OK, that was just Richard Nixon’s thing as far as we know, but dumping salsa on onion rings is, to me, like putting pineapple on pizza.  Sure, people do it, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.

The funny thing about catsup is that there doesn’t seem to be any strict definition of the stuff.  The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, defines “ketchup” (apparently the preferred spelling in Britain) as “A liquor extracted from mushrooms, tomatoes, walnuts, etc., used as a sauce.”  Mushrooms and walnuts?  Might as well throw in some tree frogs and minced wildebeest.  Here in the US of A, we make our catsup from tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, spices, and whatever’s on sale at the local chemical plant.  But according to Wikipedia, early American forms of catsup were made from oysters, mushrooms and other odd things, and more akin to Worchestershire sauce than our familiar thick “tomato” catsup.  There’s apparently something in the human spirit that can’t resist messing with catsup, because in 2000, the H.J. Heinz company, the world’s largest producer of catsup, introduced a line of brightly colored (including green, purple and pink) catsups.  They also proved that “flop” isn’t just the sound catsup makes when it hits the plate.

None of that weirdness can, however, hold a candle to the original catsup, which came to us from China via Malaysia, and was known as “ke-tsiap” or “kechap,” meaning roughly “fish sauce.”  Indeed, this “kechap” was from pickled fish and brine, and used as a dipping sauce.  Forms of this stuff first made it to Britain in the late 17th century, and as the ingredients varied over the next two centuries, the name blossomed from simply “ketsup” to “catchup” (still considered acceptable) to “catsup.”  All of these, of course, are nothing but phonetic approximations of the Chinese term, and none is more “proper” than the others (although Heinz spells it “ketchup”).  Interestingly, even folks who like to spell it “catsup” generally pronounce the word as “ketchup,” and if you encounter a person who insists on saying “cat-sup,” you’re in the presence of someone who would probably be happier if it were still made from pickled fish.

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