Ketchup Origins and Occam's Razor
this as an exercise in decision-making. When is a connection strong enough
that you believe there to be one? The twist on the ketchup story forces
us to take a strange explanation over a simpler one.
Ketchup is a word that
clearly does not have origin in the English language because it has no
intrinsic meaning. But it also doesn't sound French, Spanish or German
either. Now, there is a possibility that the word was invented and was
designed to not have any intrinsic connection with anything else. This
is the null hypothesis.
One day, I had a ketchup
epiphany. I suddenly realized that in Cantonese, a Chinese dialect that
I grew up speaking, the word we use is "keh-tsap", and the two
words translate into "tomato" and "sauce". Now given
that ketchup means nothing in English and "keh-tsap" means tomato
sauce in Cantonese and ketchup is really tomato sauce, this seems to be
a strong case for this Cantonese Origin Hypothesis.
Tomato sauce, however,
is not one of the many sauces used in Cantonese dishes. There is no indigenous
sauce that even closely resembles ketchup. The closest is a watery tomato
juice that is thickened with starch and spiced up. This sauce is never
used as dipping though. It is mainly used almost like how gravy would
This is not necessarily
a problem though. It could be that whoever came up with the English word
once overheard a Cantonese speaker refer to this tomato-based sauce as
"keh-tsap" and used it because it sounded more interesting than
Now there is another hypothesis
that is exactly the flip-side of the Cantonese Origin Hypothesis. When
I first suggested the Cantonese Origin Hypothesis to a native English
speaker who had learned to speak Mandarin, another Chinese dialect, she
pointed out that many Chinese dialects borrow from English words. For
example, toast is "do-sih" and lemon is "ling-mung"
in Cantonese. The words have no intrinsic connection to either. And since
ketchup is such a Western thing, it must be the case that Cantonese speakers
borrowed the word and the semantic correspondence was a mere coincidence.
This is the Borrowed Coincidence Hypothesis.
To see if other people
had the same weird ideas I was having, I searched the net on the origins
of the word ketchup. All the sources I found said basically the same thing
which pinpoints the origin to China, but with a twist:
The most popular theory
is that the word ketchup was derived from "koe-chiap" or "ke-tsiap"
in the Amoy dialect of China, where it meant the brine of pickled fish
or shellfish. Some people prefer the Malayan word "kechap" (spelled
ketjap by the Dutch), which may have come from the Chinese in the first
place. In any case, some time in the late seventeenth century, the name
and perhaps some samples arrived in England where it appeared in print
as "catchup" in 1690 and then as "ketchup" in 1711.
These names stuck with the British, who quickly appropriated them for
their own pickled condiments of anchovies or oysters.
So instead of supporting
the previous Cantonese Origin Hypothesis, these sources posit instead
an Ancient Chinese origin hypothesis. So not only is ketchup not a brand
name, as most Americans think, but it started out not having any tomato
sauce in it and halfway across the world. Why is it that everything seems
to originate in China?
But if this hypothesis
is true, it would mean that the original ketchups had no tomato sauce
and that they eventually did. And then what happened was that Cantonese
speakers then borrowed the word and it turned out, accidentally, to be
the exact sounds for "tomato" and "sauce".
Yet since tomato sauce
has always been called "keh-tsap" in the Cantonese dialect which
has its roots in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), this is actually a case
of where two different languages somehow managed to come up with the same
word for the same thing independently.
The fact that the original
ketchups had no tomato sauce makes it impossible that the original words
were taken from the Cantonese dialect in the 1690's. But it also means
that the Cantonese dialect did not borrow from English because they've
always called it that.
So are we stuck up a hypothesis
of Absolute Coincidence? Historical evidence contends that it is the only
valid hypothesis. But is there a simpler explanation we are missing?
Notes on Chinese:
The Cantonese word "keh" is a shortened form of the complete word
"faan-keh" for tomato. So we can refer to tomato sauce as "faan-keh-tsap"
or "keh-tsap". I think that the former refers more to the traditional
kind of sauce and the latter to ketchup as Americans know it. At a restaurant
in Hong Kong, if someone wanted ketchup they would have to use "keh-tsap"
or the waiter might be confused.
In Mandarin, the shortened form is not often used and tomato sauce is referred
to as "faan-tsie-je".
And the real difference between how the traditional tomato sauce/juice is
used in Chinese cooking is that it is used in cooking, while ketchup is
only used after cooking.