I haven’t had a lot of pho, the Vietnamese noodle-and-meat soup, but what I’ve had I’ve liked. The name is a notorious problem (for English-speakers): it looks like it should be pronounced like the word “foe,” and lots of people say it that way, but the Vietnamese word phở actually has a mid-vowel that sounds like the vowel of “fun” (you can hear it said at that Wikipedia article by clicking the “listen” symbol), and those English-speakers who know that can sound a little silly trying to reproduce it in English (and, worse, can sound supercilious if they feel impelled to “correct” those who say it like “foe”). But never mind that; where is the word from, what is its etymology? The OED (entry created 2006) says “< Vietnamese phở, perhaps < French feu (in pot au feu),” and AHD says the same, but it seems odd that such a basic Vietnamese dish should have a name of foreign origin. Not absurd, mind you, or even unlikely (cf. “hamburger”), but odd. So I was interested to see an entirely different origin proposed in Andrea Nguyen’s The History of Pho; it’s well worth reading if you have any interest in the soup itself, but here I’m focusing on etymology. She says it began (around the turn of the 20th century) as a beef noodle soup called nguu nhuc phan:
So how did nguu nhuc phan become pho? It is likely that as the dish caught on, the street hawkers became more competitive and abbreviated their distinctive calls as a means to attract customers. “Nguu nhuc phan day” (“beef and rice noodles here”) was shortened to “nguu phan a,” then “phan a,” or “phon o,” and finally settled into one word, pho. In a Vietnamese dictionary published around 1930, the entry for pho defined it as a dish of thinly sliced noodles and beef, its name having been derived from phan, the Cantonese word for flat rice noodle. It’s been suggested that pho arose because when phan is mispronounced or misheard, it can mean “excrement.”
The term pho is not French in origin, despite claims that the pronunciation bears resemblance to feu (fire in French, as in pot au feu).
Intriguing, but Nguyen is a food writer, not an etymologist, and I don’t know enough about Vietnamese to have an informed opinion. As always, I welcome all thoughts from the Varied Reader.