It’s a small (wine) world, after all

A fun read, even for a non-linguist.

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to The Splendid Table, Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s weekly radio show on food.  Kasper interviewed author Ina Lipkowitz, discussing her new book Words to Eat By:  Five Foods and the Culinary History of the English Language.  I bought the book and started reading it the next day.

In the introduction, Lipkowitz recounts being asked to a “Pig Picking” in North Carolina, where she and her husband were living for a year’s sabbatical from their native Boston.   It turned out to be a congenial and enthusiastic gathering of people literally picking apart hunks of a pig that had been roasted and then eating them, crispy skin and all.  Lipkowitz later began to wonder why it was that it wasn’t called a “Pork Picking.”  Or why we say we’re eating beef, veal, or pork rather than cow, calf, and pig.  On the other hand, we say that we eat chicken, duck, and fish – and, lest we think it’s just out of sympathy for fellow mammals as opposed to fish or fowl – we also eat lamb and goat.

In researching food words, Lipkowitz started with the premise that much of our food vocabulary comes from French and Italian words, indicating their culinary influence in western Europe.  In general, the English words for many foods come from the languages of the people who brought them to Britain.  But what about the foods that were eaten there before the Romans, Norse, and Normans invaded?  Ultimately, Lipkowitz decided to focus on five foods with English names that closely resemble what people in Britain in ages past would recognize:  apples, leeks, milk, bread, and meat.

Since the word apple was at one time synonymous with fruit in general (and not just in English), it’s not clear that apples were the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

All of these words had larger meanings in the past.  Apple, for example, was a sort of generic name for fruit (in fact, it’s not at all clear that the fruit Eve ate in the Garden of Eden was an apple at all).  Leeks covered the onion family, and bread and meat were words used to describe food in general.  Milk seems to have come from words for the act of “milking” an animal.  It’s a fascinating read going through the history of these words, and I won’t spoil it for you by going on about why these words stuck in English rather than their counterparts in other languages.

Naturally, all of this got me thinking about wine.  Lipkowitz doesn’t look at the origins of the word, but notes that wine from grapes is something the Romans brought to Britain (and other parts of northern Europe).  The inhabitants had already been drinking fermented liquids.  But what cemented the word wine to grapes in Europe and the English-speaking world was Christianity.

Since the religion had Mediterranean origins, sacramental wine naturally came from grapes, which were plentiful there.  While the Roman church tried its best to discourage the use of non-grape wine in church ceremony, other locally-available fermented fruit juices were often used.  The Council of Trent, begun in 1545, made grape wine the official sacramental beverage as part of the church’s efforts to counter the Protestant reformation by setting out more procedures for Catholicism.  But it wasn’t always effective.  As late as the 19th century, English churches had to be reminded that grape wine was the only thing that could be used for the sacrament.

It seems pretty clear that the English word wine came with the Romans.  In fact, the old English word for grapes was winberige, or wine berry.  (It appears that the word “grape” came from either the process of or a tool for harvesting the fruit of vines.)  But when I looked at various entymology sources, I found that the word for wine is similar in many other languages, not just Latin-based ones:

German:  wein

Dutch:  wijn

Italian, Spanish:  vino

French:  vin

Arabic:  wain

Hebrew:  yayin

Greek:  oinos

And it also looks like a word like it also existed in even older languages, such as Hittite (where it was called wiyana).

Genetic tests on residue from ancient clay wine vessels indicates that the grapes we use for most wines today descended from a species grown in Eurasia about 7,000 years ago.

Obviously, this is far from my area of expertise, but it makes me wonder if perhaps in this case the product spread before the name caught on.  Since the current thinking is that the ancestors of the grapes most used for wine these days were first grown in Eurasia about 7,000 years ago, did the name of the fermented grape juice from that time resemble the words now used for wine?  Or was the fermented grape juice more widely distributed first, then named in the ancient Proto-Indo-European language (thought to be the ancestor of many of our modern languages) and the name subsequently spread to regions where people already drank it?

At this point, it would require a lot more research from sources more reliable than those I have at hand.  For instance, I found a word origin discussion board stating that the Georgian word for wine (ghvino) clearly showed that the word spread with the beverage.  Later in the same discussion, though, another person insisted he had a 19th century Georgian dictionary showing that the word was actually borrowed from Greek.  (What?  You don’t have a 19th century Georgian dictionary at home?  😉 )  Or maybe there was a language older than both the roots of Georgian and Indo-European that spawned them both?

If anyone has more insight, I’d certainly like to hear it.  But it’s pretty neat that many languages the world over have similar-sounding words for wine.   Other such words are night and star, for example.   It’s comforting to know that drinking a glass of wine on a starry night will be understood nearly anywhere.


Speaking of starry nights, days are getting shorter and our nights are clear and chilly.  Pretty soon we’ll be switching from daylight savings time and all be coming home in the dark.  That makes me think of soups and stews for dinner.  But those can take a lot of time, and even if you’re using a slow cooker there’s a lot of chopping and preparation.  If I’m looking for something with a lot of flavor that cooks quickly enough to serve on a weeknight, I turn to lentils.

All that’s missing is the wine.

This recipe is a sort of minestrone with lentils instead of cannellini beans, and it’s completely vegetarian.  It’s a pretty simple process of sautéing vegetables, then adding lentils, water, and vegetable stock.  While the lentils cook, you sauté zucchini, tomato, and cabbage in a separate pan, and boil some pasta in another pot.  Combine everything with some Dijon mustard and vinegar to brighten it up.

The lentils are a perfect match for Grenache-based wines, and I like Cave la Vinsobraise Diamant Noir ($15) with the soup.  The wine is 60% Grenache, 40% Syrah, almost full-bodied but not so much that it overwhelms the soup.  Try some while the soup is cooking and you’ll be warm in no time.  It’s even good under the stars.

Bon Appetit!


Lentil Minestrone

Serves 4

Extra-virgin olive oil

2 large onions, diced small

2 garlic cloves, minced or put through a garlic press

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 small carrot, peeled and diced fine

1 small rib of celery, diced fine

1-1/2 cups lentils, rinsed

1 quart good-tasting vegetable broth

4 cups water

2 zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch dice

2 cups finely shredded cabbage (about ¼ of a head, or use packaged cabbage for cole slaw)

1 large tomato, cored and diced in half-inch pieces

½ cup small dried pasta shells, bowties, or dilatini

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Salt and pepper

Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a large soup pot over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and sauté until it’s translucent, about 6 minutes.  Then add the carrot and celery and cook for about three more minutes.  Add the garlic and a little salt and pepper, sauté for another minute.  Stir in the tomato paste and cook until the red color darkens a little. Stir in half the vegetable stock and make sure the tomato paste is nicely dissolved.  Then add the rest of the stock, the four cups of water, and the lentils.  Bring everything to a boil, then simmer for 30 minutes.

While the lentils are simmering, bring a quart of salted water to a boil.  Cook the pasta until it’s just done, then drain it and set it aside.

After you put the water on, heat a little more olive oil in a large skillet.  Add the zucchini with some salt and pepper, and sauté for a few minutes on high heat until it just starts to brown.  Add the tomato and cabbage and stir well.  Turn the heat to low and cover the pan.  Cook everything for 8-10 minutes, until the cabbage is just turning tender and the zucchini is pretty much broken down.

When the 30 minutes are up, add the drained pasta and the zucchini mixture to the pot with the lentils.  Stir in the mustard and vinegar, taste for salt and pepper, then serve.

This entry was posted in Cave la Vinsobraise, food word origins, Musings/Lectures/Rants, origin of the word wine, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc, Wine in other languages, word origins and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to It’s a small (wine) world, after all

  1. Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Drought, Frost, Hail

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s