I try to be whimsical. Honestly, I do. But somehow the obsessive-compulsive portion of my brain takes over and says, “Turn everything into a theme! Let’s organize this whimsy and potentially suck the fun right out of it!” So, when I sat down to write up another installment of Western Lingo, I did so with every intention of just going where the winds of word origins blew me. Um, it seems that the winds always blow me in a highly organized manner!
A while back, I received a comment from a reader wanting to know about the origin of the word, “vittles”. I just love it when folks send ideas my way and I was happy to explore this Western word for her. But then that organized “whimsy” took over and I found myself pondering other food-themed words.
So, this is for you, Dear Reader! Thanks for the winning suggestion! Now, see what you started?
What we pronounce as “vittles” is actually spelled “victuals”. Huh? Why would we do that? Is English not difficult enough? Must we have trick words? Well, it seems this is one “trick word” that has been around for centuries. Does this prove you can teach an old word new tricks? I’ll have to ponder that.
The pronunciation of “vittles” is derived from the old French word, “vitaille”. English speaking folks have been saying it that way since the 1400s. “Vitaille” is from the Latin word, “victus,” meaning, “livelihood, food, and sustenance”. Ah, finally! Something that makes sense! Food! Victuals (pronounced “vittles”) means food!
It seems linguists decided to change the English spelling of the word in the early 16th century. If they weren’t already dead, I might suggest that we tar and feather them! Early linguists tended to like their Latin and I suppose they thought it would make us all look smart to stick an unspoken “c” in a word. Plus, it gives those brainiac kids in spelling bees a real challenge. (“May I have the origin of that word? Could you use it in a sentence?”) At any rate, the silent “c” was stuck into the proper English spelling of the Old French word that was derived from a Latin word. Clear as mud?
So, why has the word victuals (pronounced “vittles”) become a sort of Western word? No, seriously. I’m asking! The word “victuals” has been around for a long time and even makes a couple of appearances in the King James translation of the Bible! I can’t find any reason in the world why this word of confusing origins and cruel spelling became a staple in Western lingo.
My guess is that “victuals” was a word that was sprinkled throughout some old Western movies and television shows and simply grew to be thought of as a Western word. I also have an unproven theory is that Granny Clampett from “The Beverly Hillbillies” did a lot to perpetuate the image of frying up a mess of squirrel and hog jowls and calling it, “vittles”. Good luck trying to get that image out of your head!
As long as we’re on the subject of food, let’s talk about the origin of “grub”. Can’t you just hear some grizzled ol’ cowboy saying, “I’m powerful hongry. Imma git me some grub!”? (Note to self: Auto Correct does not accept ‘hongry” and “Imma git” as real words, but I’m pretty sure that’s what a grizzled ol’ cowboy would say. So, I’m leaving them as is! Take that, Auto Correct!)
The idea of using “grub” as a substitute for “food” has been around since the 17th century. The word was originally used to mean, “to dig”. Then it became associated with animals that dig to search for food. Pigs are known to grub for edible roots and the like. The wormlike larvae of certain insects are known as grubs. Yes, grubs do grub around in leaves and roots to get their grub! (Exactly what part of this is supposed to entice hunger? I’m getting confused again!)
It does make sense that the people of the West—the farmers and those who toil in the dirt—would keep the word “grub” as a part of their vocabulary. Think about it. Farmers grub up their fields to prepare them for planting. Pigs grub up the ground to search for edible morsels. People get “grubby” from digging in the dirt. And, at the end of a long, hard day, the Westerners want some grub to eat!
I’m finding that grub is one of the more versatile words in the Westerner’s vocabulary! Interestingly, “grub” is one of the few words that has remained a form of slang for centuries. It is certainly not what you would call a proper word, but people know what it means when they hear any one of its multiple connotations.
This one may be a stretch, but while I was trying to come up with another food oriented Western word, “sop” sprang to mind. Is everyone familiar with “sop”? Allow me to use it in a sentence: I’m gonna take this biscuit to sop up the gravy on my plate.
Oh, sure, “sop” technically means to saturate something with liquid. You can get sopping wet in the rain or sop up a spill with a rag. But, in the West, “sop” generally involves a hunk of bread and some form of fat-based liquid left floating around on the bottom of a dinner plate. Mmm. Mmmm. Sopping, when done correctly, is a mealtime art form. An old-timer can generally leave a dinner plate shiny enough to see his reflection in with nothing more than a biscuit or a slice of bread.
Sop has been in use since the 1500s. Interestingly, “sopfa” is Old High German for milk with bread. Perhaps the word hasn’t evolved as much as you might have imagined!
A Note from the Whimsy Impaired
If anyone has any other ideas for a future Western Lingo installment, please let me know. Hearing from you makes my day and I love to get your suggestions. I aim to please, even if I inadvertently turn your suggestion into a theme! Maybe I’ll pencil in some “whimsy” for the next post!
Happy Trails, y’all!