A Smorgasbord of Food Terms Meaning “Mixture”

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A number of words referring to an assortment of food in one dish or display of dishes also allude to a mixture (often a confused one); here are those terms and their meanings and origins.

A figurative alphabet soup, by analogy to the soup featuring pieces of pasta shaped like letters of the alphabet, is a series of initials, often appearing as a string of groups of letters after a person’s name indicating degrees or honors or as a list of acronyms and initialisms that refer to agencies or organizations.

Speaking of pasta, several hundred years ago, pasticcio (from the Italian word pasta, meaning “paste”), an Italian term for a macaroni dish, was adopted into English to refer to a mixture (it was never used in the food sense), but it was later supplanted by the French translation pastiche. Meanwhile, far, the Latin word for the grain we call spelt (and the root of farina, the term for a meal used to make hot cereal) is the origin of the Latin term farrago, meaning “cattle feed” but also acquired by English only in the extended sense of “a mixture.”

Gumbo, probably ultimately derived from a word in an African language for “runaway slave,” refers to a type of soup or dish made of multiple ingredients, often thickened with or including okra. (The term also refers to a type of silty soil or mud, or to a mixture in general.) Jambalaya, by contrast, is a spicy rice dish with one or more types of meats and vegetables; the French Provençal dialect term jambalaia, from which it is derived, means “mix-up.”

In its original sense in Swedish, smorgasbord literally means “open-sandwich table,” but in English it refers broadly to a self-service buffet spread.

Macédoine (from the French word for the culturally diverse southern European region of Macedonia) is a mixture of fruits or vegetables served in a variety of ways, including a salad. Salmagundi, an alteration of the French word salmigondis, meaning “hodgepodge,” is a salad plate of arranged vegetables as well as meat, fish, and eggs. Salad (the word is ultimately derived from the Latin term sal, meaning “salt”) can itself refer to a mixture of disparate elements.

Hash, stemming from the French verb hacher, meaning “chop,” is a dish made of chopped meat and potatoes often served as leftovers, hence the additional sense of “a restatement of something already known.” (The word also appears in “hash brown potatoes”—alternatively called “hash browns”—a description alluding to the chopped-up form of the potatoes.) In addition, hash refers in general to a figurative or literal mess, and as a verb it means “chop,” “confuse,” or “review” or “talk about.” The expressions “hash (it) out” and “hash (it) over” refer to discussing something or solving a problem, and to make a hash of something is to ruin it or do a poor job.

Hash is also an alternative term for the pound sign, also called the number symbol; the word refers to the lines in the symbol, which resemble chopping marks. The term has become popular thanks to its widespread use in tweets, or messages sent using the social-networking service Twitter; the symbol, due to its use as a marker in tweets, is also called a hashtag. (Hash as a short form of hashish is unrelated; the latter is an Arabic term referring to resin collected from hemp for use as a drug.)

“Olla podrida” and potpourri, from Spanish and French respectively, both literally mean “rotten pot,” though they consist of savory ingredients; the former is the name of a Spanish or Latin American stew usually featuring sausage and chickpeas, and the latter refers to a mixture of flowers, herbs, and spices collected to provide a pleasant scent.

Stew itself refers to an assortment of chunks of food cooked in a hot liquid, though it can also mean “a hot bath” (the Middle English term stewe means “a heated room for a steam bath”) as well as “a state of congestion or heat or of confusion, excitement, or worry.” (It is also outdated slang for brothel or, in plural form, an obsolete reference to a red-light district.)

Three other words for stew derive from forms of French: hotchpotch (from the Anglo-French term meaning “to shake” combined with pot), which was altered to hodgepodge; ragout, which comes from the French verb ragoûter, meaning “to revive the taste” (the second syllable is related to gusto, meaning “taste” or “enthusiasm,” and gustatory, meaning “relating to taste or tasting”); and gallimaufry, from galimafree, a Middle French term for stew.

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2 thoughts on “A Smorgasbord of Food Terms Meaning “Mixture””

  1. “Hash is also an alternative term for the pound sign, also called the number symbol; the word refers to the lines in the symbol, which resemble chopping marks.”

    Good cocktail party trivia: The formal name for this symbol is “octothorpe.”

  2. Mark ~ Et mélange? Oui?

    And points to Stephen Campbell for ““octothorpe”! So cool even my spell checker doesn’t like it.


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