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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2003-12-2)

Another festive season is bearing down upon us with unseemly speed, so it may be appropriate to look at some of the things that go with it, starting with food. This train of thought came about, as so often, through a crossword puzzle, which mentioned a dish I had never heard of: “colcannon”.

It turned out to be an Irish concoction of a fairly simple kind, consisting of boiled cabbage and potatoes mashed with butter. The derivation is probably more interesting than the dish: the first syllable is derived from “cole”, a general term for plants of the cabbage family, and the rest of the word is a corruption of the Irish “ceannan”, meaning “white-headed.”

“Cole” has a long history. We use it seldom, if ever, on its own, but often in the combination “cole-slaw”, a cabbage salad, from the Dutch “koolsla”. It surfaces in Scots and English as “kail” or “kale”, and in German as “kohl”. German also has the combination-word “kohlrabi”, a kind of cabbage with a turnip-shaped stem. And where did this all begin? Surprise, surprise – the Latin word “caulis” means a stem, especially of cabbage, and “rapa”, a turnip, provides the last part of kohlrabi.

Another dish with an elusive history is “kedgeree”. I imagine most of us are familiar with it – a mixture of rice, cooked fish and hard-boiled eggs. I have always assumed that there was some nautical association with the name on account of the fish ingredient and a supposed relationship with “kedge”, a small anchor. Wrong – the dish (apparently without the fish) is originally Indian, and so is the word. Its origin is the Hindi “khichri”.

Something to drink, perhaps? It’s unlikely that you’ll be offered spruce beer, but there is, or was, such a drink. It’s made from a fermentation of sugar or treacle with the green tips of the spruce tree; I think I’ll pass on that one, if you don’t mind; it might have something in common with Greek retsina, which is undoubtedly an acquired taste. But “spruce” is an interesting word. It derives ultimately from the Latin word “Prussia”, which made its way into Old French as “Pruce.” Somewhere along the line it picked up an initial “s” and became “Spruce” – still meaning Prussia – and lent itself to various things associated with that locality: the spruce fir tree, the spruce beer mentioned above, and, interestingly, spruce leather, a fine soft variety used for making jackets in the 16th century. Thomas Nashe, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, is quoted in the Shorter O E D: “A Broker, in a spruce leather jerkin”.

This evidently came to be understood to mean not the origin of the leather but the smart appearance of the garment made of it, and spruce retains this meaning of neatness in dress and appearance to this day; a long way indeed from Prussia.

In case this should be my last opportunity to do so, I wish you love and good health during the holidays, and add the customary South African injunction: Drive Safely! (Nobody else does, but we have to start somewhere.)

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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