Ketchup Origins and Occam's Razor
by Nick Yee

        Take 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 be used.

        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 "Tomato Sauce".

        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.