A NY Times Magazine article by Heidi Julavits describes a problem I have run across a few times: incorrect foreign-language equivalents.

The New Year’s Eve dinner party in question has since gone down in our family annals as the Night of the Great Spelt Screw-Up. We were making, or intending to make, farro, an ancient wheat variety that can be cooked risotto-style with broth, butter and Parmesan. Unfortunately there was no farro to be found at the nearby Whole Foods. Blinded by a flash of substitution brilliance, I bought two pounds of spelt from the dry-goods aisle, recalling that I’d heard somewhere that farro was the fancy Italian word for the far-less-fancy-sounding “spelt.”

Spelt, to my eye, didn’t look like farro, and from a stovetop behavioral standpoint, it quickly distinguished itself. In a panic I called my personal farro expert, Jennifer DeVore, explaining I couldn’t find farro so instead I bought. . . . “Oh, no,” she interrupted. “You didn’t buy spelt.” Farro cooks in about 45 minutes; we cooked our spelt for four hours, and even then the result was extremely al dente. We threw in multiple sticks of butter, gallons of stock and $13 worth of grated Parmesan, but the spelt remained stoically flavor-impervious. We served it anyway. Contrary to the claims of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century spelt enthusiast, our guests did not find that eating it “makes the spirit of man light and cheerful.”

Mocked for my farro-equals-spelt assumption, I tried to exonerate myself by proving just how widespread is this misperception. Google “farro (spelt),” and you’ll get 2,100 hits, many for recipes that claim the grains can be used interchangeably. Even my family’s cookbook hero, Suzanne Goin, makes this claim in “Sunday Suppers at Lucques”: “Farro, also known as spelt, is probably my all-time favorite grain.” She cooks hers simply, in parsley and butter, or bulks it up with kabocha squash and cavolo nero. Farro is also wonderful in soups, like the hearty farro-and-kale soup in Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox’s new cookbook, “Olives & Oranges.” (It’s clearly gaining ground. Recently, 2 of the 17 contestants on “Top Chef” offered dishes containing farro.) But Harold McGee, in “On Food and Cooking,” clarifies that farro is the Italian word for emmer wheat; of spelt, which he calls “remarkable” for its high protein content, he says, “Often confused with emmer (farro).”

Sure enough, the Wikipedia article on emmer says “also known as farro especially in Italy.” Alas, my Garzanti dictionary defines farro as “spelt.”


  1. John Emerson says

    Google “farro (spelt),” and you’ll get 2,100 hits, many for recipes that claim the grains can be used interchangeably.
    She seems to be trying to claim that the internet can be wrong.

  2. I have only cooked with spelt once, sort-of by accident, when I was trying to come up with a new and different health-food bread, saw some spelt flour and thought that ought to work nicely in place of wheat. And wow, it certainly rises — that ended up one of the tallest loaves I’ve ever baked. Not much flavor to it, though. IIRC that batch of bread also included bits of millet, and chopped raw ginger.

  3. John Emerson says

    Off topic: By a simple Google search I just found a French word which neither my Petit Larousse nor my Oxford Hachette dictionary contained: “bouzingot”, which has concrete meanings but in my text was a nickname for French revolutionaries of 1832.
    Yay Internet! Yay Google!

  4. According to the Gender Analyzer,

    We think http://languagehat.com/ is written by a woman (83%).

    Just last week LH was 82% male. If you think that’s upsetting, I’ve gone from 92% male to 100% female in just ten days.
    Mr. Emerson is getting to be a bad influence on me with all of his off topic remarks.

  5. a French word which neither my Petit Larousse nor my Oxford Hachette dictionary contained: “bouzingot”, which has concrete meanings …
    This word is not in the Petit Robert either. I don’t remember ever having run into it. What are those concrete meanings? I guess the word comes from some industry, the workers of which were involved in that revolution (1832? not 1830?).

  6. John Emerson says
  7. You see the same thing with its source, the Latin far. Lewis and Short say that it means ‘spelt’. Same for adoreus. The Oxford Latin Dictionary corrects them to ’emmer’, although it won’t commit to scandala being ‘spelt’ (L & S ‘a very white kind of corn’). Bostock and Riley’s translation of Pliny has “spelt” throughout, for both the chapter on splet (Latin English) and the one on emmer (Latin English).
    Since spelt is marginal, the rule of thumb when confronted with a classical translation without the original text is to assume that “spelt” means “emmer.”
    Another obsolete term for emmer is “rice wheat” (e.g., here), which almost makes sense for a risotto.

  8. Oh, I see. The OED says emmer in English only dates from 1908, citing this reference. In the earlier translation of de Candolle, it is still a foreign word. So, part of the problem here is that we didn’t use to have a good way of translating it.

  9. There’s also a German dictionary at reverso.net (called woerterbuch, naturally). There’s a cookie that keeps track of the number of lookups you use, but you can reset it for infinite dictionary.

  10. Roger Depledge says

    Markus Buerli, writing for the Global Facilitation Unit for Underutilized Species, says

    Farro is a strictly ethnobotanical concept deeply rooted in Italian tradition…. The term farro includes three species: Triticum monococcum (einkorn), T. dicoccon (emmer) and T. spelta (spelt). As displayed in Table 1 in Italy they are also differentiated by calling them “farro piccolo”, “farro medio” and “farro grande” respectively.

    See also the Italian Wikipedia article.
    So all shall have prizes.

  11. I think Lat. far is typically just a coarse grain (from v. frico).
    Lat. adoreus (adj.) is from n. ador, v. edo ‘eat’ (cognate with Eng. ‘oat’), which, after Paulus Diaconus’ epitome of Sextus Pompeius Festus, has further been identified with Triticum spelta.
    Pliny’s scandala (the kind of far which the Gauls call ‘brace’), also called sandala and scandula, derives from v. scando and therefore etymologically ‘climbs’, even if also identifiably ‘very white’.

  12. “bouzingot”, which has concrete meanings
    And one of those meanings is a kind of chapeau! Why do you try to keep these things from me?

  13. John Emerson says

    We should buy you one for your French uprising re-enactments!

  14. your French uprising re-enactments
    Shall we meet at the place des Trois-Maries on the final décadi of Frimaire? We’ll catch the fools unawares as they bustle about performing their superstitious “Noël” preparations!

  15. Yes, the Oxford Latin Dictionary’s sense #3 for far (cognate with barley) is “ground grains, grouts.” Which is why it makes sense for Pliny to say that s[c]andala is a genus farris. And it looks like Italian is also somewhat like this (but see below). However sense #1 is “a kind of husked wheat, T. dicoccum or emmer.”
    L&S do indeed give adj. & subst. ădōrĕus/-um as “spelt,” confirming the T. spelta identification. But OLD has them glossed “emmer wheat.” So, too, Dalby. A quick search in JSTOR finds D’Arcy Thompson reviewing The Wheats of Classical Antiquity, “far (in the strict sense) is in fact the typical Emmer (Tr. dicoccum). It is identical with ador, adoreum.” And Calvert Watkins relating ador to Hittite ḫat-. Perhaps there is a more recent identification with spelt?
    OLD, s.v. scandala: “[prob. foreign, the correct form of the name is uncertain] A Gallic variety of far,” citing only Pliny. Dalby commits to “spelt.”
    On the immediate confusion and in particular the changing senses in both languages, an article from Taxon:

    In the early part of this century and before, “farro” applied only to T. dicoccum; “spelt” variously applied to the grain (i.e., “spelt grain”) or to the plant of T. spelta (“common spelt”; otherwise, called “dinkel”), T. dicoccum (otherwise, called “emmer”), and T. monococcum (“small spelt”; otherwise, called “einkorn”) (Percival, 1921). As currently understood, “farro” is the common name for all three hulled wheats, whereas “spelt” is now restricted to T. spelta (Padulosi & al., 1995).

  16. John Emerson says

    Les Miserables 5.3:

    From time to time, parties re-sole their old insults. In 1832, the word bousingot formed the interim between the word jacobin, which had become obsolete, and the word demagogue which has since rendered such excellent service.

  17. John Emerson says

    The “5.3” is apparently wrong. Don’t know why it was posted that way. It may be 3.1.

  18. I’ve never heard of (or tried to cook with) farro, but spelt is a common item in my kitchen. I take mixed grains (usually including at least three of: brown rice, rye berries, wheat berries, spelt, quinoa, wild rice, buckwheat) and put them in my rice cooker, and they cook up just fine. Sometimes I add spices, but usually not; I find most of the non-rice items take a little more water than plain rice does, but that’s the only difference in cooking.

  19. “En 1832, le mot bousingot faisait l’intérim entre le mot jacobin qui était éculé, et le mot démagogue alors presque inusité et qui a fait depuis un si excellent service.” (Context.)

  20. John Emerson says

    There’s a book “Nerval et les bousingots” which I have just ordered.

  21. John Emerson says
  22. For reference, here is Paulus’ Festus on ador, as referenced by fiosachd above (and Lewis & Short, s.v.), though I still imagine he’s up on more recent research than I have handy access to.

  23. John Emerson says

    Pictures of rare hats, in French, for Scrabble players. The bousingot is disappointing.
    More on bousingot.
    My previous post was a premature save, sorry.

  24. That whole link is disappointing:
    Erreur 500 : Serveur en maintenance.
    Cette page est momentanément inaccessible pour cause de maintenance.
    Nous faisons tout pour qu’elle soit de nouveau disponible très rapidement.
    Merci de réessayer d’ici quelques minutes.
    – L’équipe d’over-blog –
    500 Error : This page is not available.
    Page currently unreachable for maintenance.
    We are doing our best to make this page available again.

    But at least it’s bilingual.

  25. John Emerson says

    Persevere! Lots of hat pictures, albeit with a Scrabble bias.

  26. You won’t catch me playing Scrabble in one of that lot. Except perhaps the bicorne.

  27. None of those hats makes you much taller. I suppose it’s not important for Scrabble.

  28. John Emerson says
  29. mollymooly says

    Whether “farro” translates as “spelt” depends on whether the book you are translating is a cookbook or the travelogue of an intrepid anglophone among the Tuscan peasantry. An informed translator can make such judgement calls, but a lexicographer ought to provide enough information to inform all its target readers.
    Also cf. (notsolongago) wheat = corn = maize

  30. Forbidden
    You don’t have permission to access /snakegoddess/images
    You did that on purpose, didn’t you! What, only six footers get in, I suppose?

  31. Lifted from my girlfriend’s food blog: http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl/index.html It wouldn’t help you with farro/spelt, though.

  32. John Emerson says

    Is your Safesearch on?
    It’s a very tall hat.

  33. No. Why, is it a rude hat? I’m just too damn short to get in.

  34. John Emerson says

    This is an explicit Minoan snake-goddess, not suited for those under 18. Are you under 18?

  35. What, inches?

  36. Exactly how short, er, tall, are you, Kron? This is starting to look like some sort of fixation.

  37. I say I’m 5′-10″, but my wife, who’s exactly the same height as me, says she’s 176cm, and that’s shorter (5′-9 1/4″). Ok, maybe I’m almost five ten-ish.

  38. So you’re both an inch or so taller than me, but my excuse is that I’m not 100% Norwegian. The Danish blood makes me shorter. Here in Chicago I’m considered to be abnormally tall. When I visit Minneapolis I always get this weird feeling about the people, and then I realize I’m looking at them all eye to eye.
    And yes, Minneapolis celebrates St. Olaf’s Day. Informally of course, since Scandinavians don’t like the spotlight.

  39. John Emerson says

    St. Olaf was one of the most brutal saints.
    Gustavus Adolphus was a brute too, but not a saint.

  40. going dotty in kansas says

    oy – that’s French Scrabble. All self-respecting American/English Scrabble players know that a Y is worth only 4 points, not 10, and what in heck would you do with 2 Q’s, anyway? Back to memorizing the 908 threes. As for spelt: my temporomandibular joints ache at the thought. I’ll take farro any day, esp. the way my Nonna dealt with it…

  41. marie-lucie says

    Good grief, AJP, you had made it sound as if you were practically a dwarf! Perhaps being in Norway makes you feel short, but there are plenty of places in the world where you would be very tall. You should travel South more often.
    In France I was tall, but in North America I am just about average for a woman, which suits me fine. When I go back to France I am always surprised to see how many men are quite a bit shorter than I am (but many of them are quite a bit taller, especially the younger ones).

  42. St. Olaf was one of the most brutal saints.
    Oh, the Norwegians didn’t like him at all when he was alive, but being dead changed all of that. Besides, in Minneapolis they really need a good holiday for the day after St. Patrick’s Day, when all the Irish are hung over after being so smug the day before.

  43. My daughter’s almost my height. My wife likes high heels. My Norwegian brother-in-law is six feet eight or nine (2050mm). I am a dwarf.

  44. Poor baby. The guys in my family are all way, way over six feet. None of them are at all quarrelsome either–I guess no one ever tries to mess with big guys. It does make buying furniture a bit of a challenge, though.
    I have always stayed away from heels, even though they make my legs look even more awesome than they already are. I don’t go for blonde guys so that means I’m chasing the non-Norwegian shorter ones who I am convinced prefer someone an inch or two shorter so they can feel protective or something. The same principle as the eighth grade sock hop.

  45. Siganus Sutor says

    You Marsjesty, you are not a little green man, are you?

  46. I try to bathe almost every month or at least roll in the snow; so, no, not very.

  47. I think I’ve finally got the picture up, it’s called Evans’s Snake Goddess, isn’t it?
    I can’t wear something like that to play Scrabble in — I’m not a snake goddess, for heaven’s sake.

  48. The OED says emmer in English only dates from 1908
    The OED needs to do a Google Books search on The Lake Dwellings of Switzerland and Other Parts of Europe by Dr. Ferdinand Keller Translated and arranged by John Edward Lee, F.S.A. F.G.S. London, Longmans, Green, and Co. published 1866, which says, inter alia, “The Egyptian wheat (Triticum turgidum, L.), the two-rowed wheat (Emmer — Triticum dicoccum, Sehr.), and the one-grained wheat (Triticum monococcum), were probably, like the two-rowed barley, only cultivated as experiments in a few places ; and the spelt (Triticum spelta, L.), which at present is one of the most important cereals … appeared later, not till the bronze age …
    Admittedly this is a translation from (presumably) German, but emmer is listed without further explanation apart from its botanical name, while what I bet was, in the original German, given as “Einkorn” is translated as “the one-grained wheat”. This may suggest that emmer was not a totally unfamiliar word to antiquarians in mid-Victorian England: it may be a German name, but the grain was grown in Iron Age Britain, along with spelt …

  49. John Emerson says

    You’d be as tall as your wife, and by my guess bustier.

  50. michael farris says

    Okay, am I the only one who keeps misreading the title of this post?
    The first time I saw it, I interpreted ‘spelt’ as an alternate of ‘spelled’ and wondered “farro is not spelt how”. This is only after mentally confusing farro with forró (a kind of brazilian accordion music)
    So, my first thought was that it was about lusophone spelling rules.
    Yes, very little of my mind is left.

  51. Crown, A. J. P. says

    I was thinking almost the same, except I was misreading it as Farø, in Denmark.

  52. I myself thought it was a comment on a misspelling of “farrow.”

  53. Back during my history major incarnation, I used to get a brand of breakfast food made with I think nine historical grains including quinoa, spelt and some others. The idea was to keep them from going extinct by creating a market for them. It tasted kind of nutty and less bland than most breakfast cereal. I alternated it with muesli, which I developed a taste for after a stay in a London hostel.

  54. A NY Times Magazine article by Heidi Julavits
    Spell it that way and your name means Heidi Christmasjoke, in Norwegian. Which reminds me of Chief Justice Renquist, or Clean-Twig in Swedish. Funny name, Clean Twig. Then there was Judge Learned Hand..I never heard anyone comment on Mr Clean Twig, so I’m doing so now.

  55. I have been living in Florence (Firenze) where I am never without una torta di farro e mela. It lasts me 4 days and then I buy another at the local bakery. If you can imagine a whole grain tea cake, slightly sweet, slightly nutty; delicious and comforting. Everyone here says ‘the English word for it is spelt’. What do they know?

  56. Sounds delicious!

  57. Turns out the NYT had addressed the confusion a decade ago.

  58. Now I’m hungry for farro, and I’ve never eaten it in my life.

  59. I think that some clarification comes from the entry on “farro” in the Italian version of Wikipedia (http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farro). It turns out that farro is a generic term for hulled wheats, of which the cultivated varieties are einkorn, emmer and spelt. These have toughened glumes which tightly enclose the grains, which need pounding or milling to be removed unlike common or durum wheat where the grains are released on threshing.
    The terms in Italian are “piccolo (small) farro” for einkorn, “farro medio (medium)” or just “farro” for emmer, and “farro grande (large)” or “farro spelta” for spelt.
    Here is another page which gives a number of explanations about and illustrations of hulled wheats in various languages: http://www.summagallicana.it/lessico/f/farro%20e%20spelta.htm
    Maybe it is safer to speak Latin when you go shopping and insist on getting Triticum dicoccum and not Triticum spelta.

  60. pounding or milling to be removed
    Pliny says (Latin English) the pistor was generally a prisoner of war.

  61. A Google ad now on the LH front page:
    Organic Spelt Products
    Pasta, Snacks, Flour & Much More Vita-Spelt® from Purity Foods

  62. I am a mere 6’1″ = 185 cm, which makes me a dwarf by the standards of my families of origin. My mother, at 5’8″ = 175 cm was the shortest of her family of four sisters; my tallest aunt is 6′ = 183 cm. I think my father at 5’11” = 180 cm was the shortest male in his family of eight. Oddly, all my height is in my torso: I wear length 28 pants.

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