Monday, October 15, 2018

Spices and herbs, Part 18: Eng. curry and Sp. curry/curri

[This entry is an excerpt from Chapter 47, "Spices and herbs", of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

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Eng. curry and Sp. curry/curri


The word curry is used for a type of dish or family of dishes typical of South and Southeast Asian cuisines made with a spiced sauce or relish made from a combination of spices or herbs, such as onion, ginger, turmeric, garlic, coriander, cumin, as well as fresh or dried chilies, some of which are hot. A curry is a type of stew (Sp. estofado, guisado, guiso) and there are many different types in the many varied cuisines of this part of the world. A curry may contain meat, poultry, fish, or shellfish, with or without vegetables. However, there are, also vegetarian curries and, actually, in India, most curries are vegetarian, without meat, chicken, or fish.

Actually, it was Europeans who lumped the large variety of savory stews found in the Indian subcontinent into a category that they came to call curry. The British brought Asian curry back to Great Britain, modifying it along the way, just like the Dutch brought similar dishes to the Netherlands from what today is Indonesia. The first the Indian curry house opened in London in 1810. In time, curry has become extremely popular in Britain, to the extent that some consider curry a true national dish.[1] Different varieties of curries have also made it to other countries’ cuisines, such as those of China, Japan, Korea, South Africa, and the West Indies.

Figure 189: Chicken tikka masala, a type of chicken curry,
one of the most popular dishes of Southeast Asia in the world.[i]

The word curry, pronounced [ˈkʰɜɹi] in North American English and [ˈkʰʌɹi] in British English, is said to come from the Tamil language of Sri Lanka and southern India, from the word  கறி (kaṟi), which meant ‘sauce, relish for rice’ (OED). The equivalent word in Kannada, another language of south India, is karil, from where comes the Portuguese word for ‘curry’, caril. French borrowed the word as cari, though today the English loanword curry is more common (it is pronounced [ky.ˈʀi]). Spanish too has borrowed the word curry from English for this type of dish, which is rare in the Spanish-speaking world. It is pronounced as it is spelled, namely [ˈku.ri]. The spelling curri has also been proposed and it is acceptable according to the DPD.

The actual spelling of the English word curry is thought to have been influenced by an obsolete English word cury meaning ‘cookery’ or ‘cooked dish’. This word is a 14th century loan from Old French queurie that meant ‘cookery, kitchen’ and which is ultimately derived from a word that was derived from Vulgar Latin cocus ‘cook’ (coquus in Classical Latin). This same Latin root coc‑ is found in English words such as cook and in Spanish words such as cocina ‘kitchen’, cocinar ‘to cook’ and cocer ‘to cook’ (all three of them patrimonial words).

We should mention that English has another, unrelated word curry, a verb, which has two distantly related meanings. One of these meanings is used primarily in North America, and it is ‘to groom (a horse) with a currycomb’ (Sp. almohazar) (AHD). The other meaning is ‘to prepare (tanned hides) for use, as by soaking or coloring’ (Sp. curtir) (AHD). This word comes from Anglo-Norman curreier ‘to prepare, arrange’, which comes from Vulgar Latin *conrēdāre, a verb formed from the prefix com‑ ‘with’ and the Vulgar Latin verb *rēdāre ‘to make ready’, which is a Germanic loan related to Eng. ready, from Proto-Germanic *raidaz ‘ready, arranged, prepared’. Spanish did not inherit this any version of this Vulgar Latin verb.[2] Perhaps the most common use of the verb to curry nowadays is in the idiomatic phrase to curry favor (with somebody), which means ‘to seek or gain favor by fawning or flattery’ (AHD) (in Spanish: congraciarse con alguien, hacerle la pelota a alguien (Spain, informal), etc.).

Although the word curry is used for the type of dish that we have been discussing, it is also used to refer to the sauce or relish used to make these dishes, since after all, the sauce is what the word curry originally referred to. The OED describes this sense of the word curry (‘curry sauce’) as ‘a preparation of meat, fish, fruit, or vegetables, cooked with a quantity of bruised spices and turmeric, and used as a relish or flavoring, especially for dishes composed of or served with rice’.

In addition, the word curry is also used nowadays to refer to a commercially sold powdered mixture of spices used to make this dish, which is also known as curry powder (Sp. curri en polvo, or just curri). This powder is actually a Western invention, one dating back to the 19th century, and not a specific traditional mix of ingredients or something that was ever used where curry originated. The spice mixture known as curry varies a great deal depending on the manufacturer. Commonly found spices in curry powder blends are coriander, cumin, turmeric, ginger, fenugreek, and chili peppers. Less common ingredients are garlic, asafetida, fennel seed, caraway, cinnamon, clove, mustard seed, green cardamom, black cardamom, nutmeg, long pepper, and black pepper.[ii]


Curry that has chicken in it is very popular in some places. Such dishes are popularly known as chicken curry. In addition, it can also be referred to by using the adjective curried, as in curried chicken. Both phrases would be translated into Spanish as pollo al curry.[3] The word curried is, of course, the past participle of the verb to curry, derived from the noun curry by conversion (cf. Part I, Chapter 5, §5.7). This verb, which means ‘to prepare or flavor with a curry sauce’, is not as common as the derived adjective curried.


We should mention that there is also a plant known as curry plant, so called because of the strong smell of its leaves, which is reminiscent of the smell of curry powder. The botanical name of this plant is Helichrysum italicum, a flowering plant from the daisy family (Asteraceae). Although this plant is occasionally used as a spice, it has nothing to do with the curry that we have been talking about. This plant is also not related to a tree popularly known as the curry tree, which produces an aromatic leaf often used in Indian and Sri Lankan cuisines, including some curries. The leaf of this plant is popularly known as curry leaf. This tree is native to India and Sri Lanka and its botanical name is Murraya koenigii.[4]

Eng. stew and Sp. estofado

As an aside in this section about curry, let us look at the words Eng. stew and its Spanish equivalent estofado, since we said that a curry is a type of stew. These two words are related to each other and may perhaps be related to the words Eng. stove ~ Sp. estufa as well.

Although the full history of the words Eng. stew and Sp. estofado is a bit confused, they seem to ultimately come from the Vulgar Latin verb *stufare ‘to evaporate, steam off’ (another version of this verb is *stupare). This word is presumably a loanword and adaptation from Ancient Greek εκτύφειν (ektúphein) ‘to smoke’, derived from the verb τύφειν (túphein) ‘to raise smoke, smolder’.[5] These Greek verbs are derived from the noun τύφος (túphos) ‘steam, fever, stupor’, a word also found in Vulgar Latin as *tūfus ‘hot vapor, steam’. The New Latin word tȳphus also comes from this Greek word, resulting in Eng. typhus and Sp. tifus. Sp. tufo ‘strong smell’ is also a descendant of Lat. tūfus.[6]

The English verb to stew is a 14th century loan from Old French estuver ‘to have a hot bath, plunge into a bath; stew’ (cf. Modern French étuver; Provençal estubar; the related Old French noun estuve meant ‘large bath’, Mod. Fr. étuve). The verb to stew is used today primarily for a form of cooking since its primary meaning is to ‘cook or be cooked slowly in liquid in a closed dish or pan’ (COED). There are other, less common meanings for this verb, including some informal ones, such as ‘to suffer with oppressive heat or stuffy confinement; swelter’ (AHD).

The noun stew with the meaning ‘a dish cooked by stewing, especially a mixture of meat or fish and vegetables with stock’ (AHD) is derived from the verb to stew and it is first attested in the mid-18th century. There was an earlier noun stew also derived from the verb that meant ‘heated room’ and ‘vessel for boiling, a caldron’ (OED).

One Spanish equivalent of the English verb stew is estofar, which is a cognate of Eng. stew and which also presumably came into the language through French estuver or, actually, because of its sounds, probably through a variant of this French verb influenced by its Italian cognate, stufare, or else influenced by a different, unrelated Old French verb estofer (Modern French étouffer) that meant ‘to stifle, suffocate, choke, smother (a fire)’, a verb that comes from Vulgar Latin *stuffare ‘to stuff, cover’.[7] Sp. estofar is first attested in the early 16th century and other variants of this word were estubar, estobar, and estufar.[8]

Just like English derived the noun stew from the verb stew by conversion, Spanish derived the noun estofado from the past participle of the verb estofar, also by conversion.

Actually, more common than the verb estofar in Modern Spanish for the meaning ‘to stew’ is the verb guisar, a verb that originally meant ‘to prepare, arrange’. Today, the verb guisar is used in some dialects as equivalent of cocinar ‘to cook’, as in El pollo se guisó en muy poco tiempo ‘The chicken cooked very quickly’ (VOX), equivalent in other dialects to El pollo se hizo en muy poco tiempo or El pollo se cocinó en muy poco tiempo.  More commonly, however, the verb guisar means ‘to stew’. It can also translate the English verb to braise, which means ‘fry (food) lightly and then stew slowly in a closed container’ (COED).

The switch in meaning from ‘prepare’ to ‘cook’ for the verb guisar came obviously by the common use of this verb with objects having to do with food. There is a common Spanish saying with guisar, namely Tú te lo guisas, tú te lo comes, which is equivalent to the English expression You have made your bed, now you must lie on it.

Sp. guisar is an old word, attested in the Cid poem already with the original meaning. This verb was derived, in Spanish, from the noun guisa ‘manner, way, guise’, which is archaic today. This noun’s source is Germanic, from a Germanic word that descended from Proto-Germanic *wīsǭ ‘manner, way’, perhaps from Old Frankish *wīsa (same meaning). Old English had a patrimonial word wīse that meant the same thing which descended from the same Proto-Germanic word. This word is archaic or obsolete today, but it has survived in the suffix ‑wise, as in clockwise, lengthwise, moneywise, publicity-wise. The English word wise that means ‘having or showing experience, knowledge, and good judgement’ (COED) is a patrimonial word derived from the same Germanic root, since it comes from Old Germanic *wīsaz. The English word guise ‘a way in which someone or something appears or is presented’ (COED) is a doublet of the word wise that means ‘manner, way’. It is a loanword from French, which took it from the Frankish word we just mentioned, as well as of Sp. guisa.

From the verb guisar, we get the noun guisado, derived from the verb’s past participle by conversion, as well as its synonym guiso. Both of these words mean ‘stew’ and, just as in the case of the verb, is more common than estofado to express this meaning. The original meaning of guisado was ‘reasonable’, and later ‘arrangement’, since the original meaning of the verb guisar was ‘to arrange’, but those meanings are now obsolete. The noun guiso as equivalent of food-related guisado seems to have come later into the language.



[1] What is now India, along with Pakistan and Bangladesh, was part of the British Empire from the early 18th century until 1947. This explains why Great Britain received culinary influences from those lands, such as this one. It also explains why there are so many natives of India and Pakistan living in Great Britain and other parts of the British Commonwealth and other parts of the English-speaking world, including the United States.

[2] Sp. enredar ‘to catch in a net, net; to tangle up, entangle; etc.’ is unrelated to Eng. ready, since it comes from red ‘net’, which comes from Lat. rēte (gen. rētis, acc. rēte).

[3] Spanish uses al, al la, and a lo (i.e. a + definite article) followed by a noun or adjective, to indicate the manner or style in which something is done or made, e.g. a la española ‘the Spanish way’, a la antigua ‘the old-fashioned way’. The gender of the article depends on the gender of the noun that follows. When an adjective follows, there is an understood noun there, typically manera or usanza ‘manner, way’, which are feminine and hence a la is more common (but cf. al curri). It is used very often to indicate the manner of preparing a food, as in espaguetis a la milanesa ‘Spaghetti Milanese’ (lit. ‘spaghetti made the Milan way’). This construction with the preposition a is most likely a calque from the French expression à la ‘in the manner of’, borrowed into English for many expressions related to cooking, fashion, and style, e.g. walking with a swagger à la John Wayne (MWALD) or She has her hair blonde and curly, à la Marilyn Monroe (CALD). The variant a lo is often used with names, whether male or female, e.g. un corte de pelo a lo Marlon Brando ‘a Marlon Brando type haircut’.

[4] The two parts of this tree’s species name commemorate two different 18th century botanists. The genus name Murraya comes from botanist Johan Andreas Murray. The species name koenigii comes from Johann König.

[5] The precursors of *stufare and *stupare could have been the unattested Late Latin verbs *extūpāre and *extūfāre, respectively; note that the Latin prefix ex‑ ‘off’ is equivalent to Greek εκ‑.

[6] Eng. typhus and Sp. tifus refer, of course, to ‘any of several forms of infectious disease caused by [bacteria of the genus] rickettsia, especially those transmitted by fleas, lice, or mites, and characterized generally by severe headache, sustained high fever, depression, delirium, and the eruption of red rashes on the skin’ (AHD).

The cognate nouns Eng. typhoon and Sp. tifón are not thought to be related to the Greek word τύφος (túphos). They are thought to come from the Sinitic 大風 ‘big wind’ (Mandarin dàfēng). The spelling of the English word, however, is clearly influenced by Ancient Greek τϕν (tuphôn) ‘whirlwind’ (Τυφν Tuphôn was also the name of a monster with 100 heads in Greek mythology). There is a theory that the Chinese word may ultimately come from Ancient Greek, through Arabic or Indian languages, but that is not very likely.

[7] The English noun and verb stuff [ˈstʌf] are not related to this Vulgar Latin *stuffare. They come from Old French estoffe ‘material, furniture’ and estoffer ‘equip, furnish’, respectively, which come from Medieval Latin estoffa, stoffa. The English noun stuff in particular has developed a great number of senses, including the very common informal senses ‘unspecified material’, as in Put that stuff over there, ‘household or personal articles considered as a group’, and ‘worthless objects’ (AHD).

The final source of Eng. stuff is unclear. Some have related it to Old High German *stopfôn ‘to plug with oakum’, which is a loanword from medieval Latin stuppāre ‘to plug, stop up’, derive from stuppa ‘tow, oakum’. The noun tow refers to a ‘coarse broken flax or hemp fiber prepared for spinning’ (AHD). Eng. oakum is an obsolete word for a ‘loose fiber obtained by untwisting old rope, used especially in caulking wooden ships’. The Spanish equivalent is estopa, which besides ‘tow’ and ‘oakum’, also means ‘burlap’. If this etymology is correct, then Eng. stuff would be a cognate of Sp. estopa.

[8] It is not clear whether there is a connection between Eng. stew and Sp. estofar, on one hand, and the words Eng. stove and Sp. estufa on the other. These last two nouns are often said to be false cognates, though they share a semantic component, namely ‘heating’, and some of their senses are also related, at least in some dialects of Spanish. Eng. stove refers to ‘an apparatus for cooking or heating that operates by burning fuel or using electricity’ (COED), though its primary use today is ‘apparatus for cooking’, not for heating. English stove translates into Spanish as cocina for the ‘cooking range’ sense, as hornillo for the ‘cooking ring’ sense, and as horno for the ‘oven’ sense. Sp. estufa today means primarily an ‘apparatus for heating’, though in some countries, such as Colombia and Mexico, it is also used for ‘an apparatus for cooking’, i.e. for a stove.

We know that Sp. estufa comes from late Latin or Romance stūfa, ‘an enclosed space heated artificially’, and the related verb stūfāre ‘to heat up an enclosed space’. This verb is thought to come from Vulgar Latin *extūpare or *extūpare ‘to heat with steam’, from where we saw ultimately come the verbs Eng. stew and Sp. estofar.

Experts are not sure whether Eng. stove is ultimately related to Sp. estufa and its Romance cognates. We do know that English got the word stove from Middle Dutch and/or Middle Low German stove. What is not clear is whether this word came from Proto-Germanic *stubō ‘room, living room, heated room’, or whether it was borrowed from a Romance word related to Sp. estufa, but this seems to be quite likely.

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