I was looking at the book Caviar by the delightfully named Inga Saffron when I was stopped cold by an excursus on the etymology of the word caviar. She found the OED’s etymology boring and confusing:

Of uncertain origin, found in Turkish as kha¯vya¯r; in Italian in 16th c. as caviale (whence 16th c. Fr. cavial, Sp. cavial, 16th c. Eng. cavialy), also as caviaro, whence Fr. and Pg. caviar. (‘It has no root in Turkish, and has not the look of a Turkish word. Redhouse in his MS. Thesaurus marks it as Italian-Turkish, looking upon it as borrowed from Italian.’ Prof. Ch. Rieu.)

and preferred the livelier approach of Demetrius J. Georgacas, a Greek scholar who (miracle of miracles!) thought that the word had to have a Greek source, despite the absence of any actual evidence.

Let’s first dispose of caviar. The American Heritage Dictionary has a nice excursus on the origin of the word:

Word History: Although caviar might seem to be something quintessentially Russian, the word caviar is not, the native Russian term being ikra. Caviar first came into English in the 16th century, probably by way of French and Italian, which borrowed it from Turkish havyar. The source of the Turkish word is apparently an Iranian dialectal form related to the Persian word for “egg,” kha¯yah, and this in turn goes back to the same Indo-European root that gives us the English words egg and oval. This rather exotic etymology is appropriate to a substance that is not to everyone’s taste, giving rise to Shakespeare’s famous phrase, ” ’twas caviary to the general,” the general public, that is.

So much for Georgacas. What fascinates me is the unwillingness to accept scientific etymologies, the need for a “good story” (although to me the passage of a word from an Iranian dialect to Turkish and thence to Western Europe seems like a great story), and this goes back to what I was talking about in The Language Wars: the need for mass exposure to basic linguistics courses, so that people will have a grasp of how languages change and will not be so drawn to acronyms and ripping yarns.


  1. “The need for mass exposure to basic linguistics courses”.
    When I take power, there WILL be mass exposure to linguistics courses.
    I will write the textbook myself, and everyone will study it.

  2. May I be your hospodar, or mutasharrif? I will flatter you effectively and employ subtly compulsive methods on the sheeplike populace.

  3. I like this post, and the site in general, Language Hat (do you have a real identity ?)
    My interest in language and etymology is peripheral on the face of it, but real none-the-less.
    This particular post intrigues me two-fold.
    (1) that the OED does indeed have a less “convincing” story than the AHD, despite the same essential fact.
    (2) that in my quest for better models of what we know, that a “good story” is often the preferred truth – inescapable fact in itself.

  4. In the immortal words of Maxwell Scott, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
    As to your question, no, I do not have a real identity. “I” am a resultant of a number of ideational vectors created by the ungoverned and ever-shifting vortices of the internet-ether. Wherever my virtual hat lands is my head.

  5. Like it.
    I did in fact also post my own link to you on this subject.
    Link Here

Speak Your Mind