In response to this post, I received an e-mail from Pete Wells, Dining Editor of The New York Times, in which he quoted what he’d written to Bill Poser:

Several readers have written us about this passage in a recent post of yours on Language Log:

Reader Jim Gordon wondered about this and emailed the author of the article. Her response: she and her consultants and editors were aware of the correct name and etymology but thought that some readers might be put off by the notion of rotten food, so they changed the name a little and made up a fake etymology.

Now I haven’t seen the letter Mr. Gordon received, but I can tell you that the author of the article did not “make up a fake etymology.” The chef in the article gave us the etymology herself and we quickly double-checked it on deadline and found it in the Wikipedia entry on “olla podrida.”
Granted, Wikipedia is not what I’d consider a completely reliable source, but it does at least suggest that the “poderida” etymology is out there somewhere and did not spring to life in Wednesday’s New York Times.
We’re doing some more research into the question to see if we can find an early document referring to “olla poderida” but in the meantime I wanted to let you know that the state of journalism is not quite as far gone as you might have imagined.

As I told Pete Wells, next time they should consult a dictionary rather than Wikipedia, but reliance on unreliable sources is a hell of a lot better than simply making stuff up, so I withdraw my call for tarring and feathering and resume my previous attitude of generalized suspicion. And a tip of the Languagehat hat to Mr. Wells for taking the issue seriously enough to respond.


  1. The Times know better than to ignore Steve. Lucky for them they responded so quickly!

  2. Some Times reporters rely overmuch on Wikipedia.
    For example, this story claims “Super Duper Tuesday” was coined in 2007 by Bill Schneider of CNN. As far as I can tell, it was a direct lift from Wikipedia’s entry for “Super Duper Tuesday” until I changed it to point out that the word has been repeatedly been recoined since at least as early as 1985. (Erin McKean and Jesse Sheidlower, colleagues of mine who are quoted in the story, say the reporter did not talk dates with them at all, or else they would have tried to set her straight.)
    My favorite example, though, happened a couple of years ago. I was working with a copy editor on my annual words-of-the-year piece for the Times. The copy editor was Noam Cohen, who also tends to write about Wikipedia for the paper. We were going over one of my entries on the piece and he challenged my definition by saying, That’s not what Wikipedia says.
    I told him to give me a minute and check again. I’d make Wikipedia agree with me. He didn’t think that was funny, so I had to explain. In my circles, Wikipedia isn’t a source to be trusted. Never. It usually has substantial errors when I check it for things about which I have some expertise. Provable stuff like dates, names, chronologies, etc., not just things that are a matter of opinion, though I don’t know how anyone can look at its entry for “slang” and not be appalled at how dreadful it is–particularly when some past edits have been so superior. I’ve tried to make some changes there and have them stick, to no avail. The commons is mostly dirt, now, and is covered in ATV trails and sewage and some kids are striking matches under the pines. It seems unsalvageable to me.
    Anyway, to further my amusement, Noam Cohen’s next tactic was to google my word and come up with another site that the he said proved my definition wrong. He sounded triumphant as he read it and then deflated when I told him that was my work, too, and that I’d written a less dictionary-fied, more prose-like entry for the Times, but really, they were the same. The first web hit for the word was my own web site.

  3. Ola, L Hat,
    I grew up in Dallas, Texas, where Olla Podrida was a shopping mall–the following from a Dallasite.
    Best Repurposing of a Crap Mall (2006)
    Olla Podrida Turns Into Hebrew School, Seriously
    Olla Podrida closed down exactly 10 years ago this summer, and if you’re not from around these parts, let us explain how much of a heartbreaker that was for some of us natives. See, it was an oddball mall at Coit Road and LBJ Freeway built, from what we hear, out of abandoned airplane hangars. Best we can recall, the inside was wood, wood and more wood; our hazy memories recall the place looking like a pirate ship. And it wasn’t your average mall, but one filled with artsy-craftsy kiosks–glass-blowers, landscape artists, people who made things with rope, candy-makers–in other words, everyone who sooner or later wound up at the West End Marketplace till it shuttered earlier this year. Well, Olla Podrida is now the home of Akiba Academy and Yavneh Academy–schools for the Chosen People, as opposed to, oh, the Da Vinci Academy, which is a school for the Accepted People, and there’s a big difference. The Hebrew learnin’ facilities purchased the mall three years ago, tore the place down and built in its place some fancy new kosher digs. Oh, but Olla Podrida lives: There’s a band from Austin with the same name (more or less–it drops one “l”) featuring David Wingo, who writes the music for the movies of David Gordon Green, who’s from Dallas. And the circle is complete.
    Back to me:
    When I lived in Santa Fe, we ate Olla Podrida all the time–the Mexican kind not the Burgos Spain kind–the Mexican kind was a mixture of red (pinto) beans, chili peppers, and stew beef–a “stew” in other words, which is what I thought Olla Podrida meant, “a stew made with anything at hand you can throw in the pot.” I’ve even eaten a hominy stew that was called Olla Podrida. Never have I seen it spelled Olla Poderida–
    Ur fiend

  4. Wiki is still my first stop. I just read a very illuminating article about Erik Satie’s “Vexations”. The article on the Qarakitai is up to date and good. On the other hand, the article about the Caucasian Albanians makes what I think is a mistake in taking the word “Huns” to mean Attila’s Huns, rather than just being a generic term. Etc.
    Granted, Wiki isn’t an authoritative reference — it’s a very quick and convenient resource. It’s a little bit like grabbing the first book on a given topic in a pretty good library. Good libraries do have bad books in them.
    So you do need to read critically. I find Wiki most useful on peripheral topics that I know something about, but not a lot.
    I think that people are wrong to trust authoritative references anyway. Lots of established references have big errors.

  5. I think that people are wrong to trust authoritative references anyway. Lots of established references have big errors.
    Definitely true. I was led astray the other day by an incorrect pronunciation in a dictionary. Not even a variant or a dialect pronunciation, just a wrong one that I then used on the radio show so that a zillion people could then write to me to tell me I was wrong…

  6. I never checked it, but I’ve been told that Liang’s Chinese-English Dictionary, the most popular one in Taiwan while I was there, inverted the definitions of “insurer” and “insuree”. I also noted myself that they didn’t distinguish between “fungicide” and “germicide” — basically they lumped viruses, bacteria, and microscopic fungi. (Yes, I had a fungus infection).

  7. I was led astray the other day by an incorrect pronunciation in a dictionary.
    This has happened to me more than once. Webster’s Biographical Dictionary used to (I don’t know if they still do) give “‘lü-ger” for the family name of the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna a century ago, which is actually pronounced loo-AY-ger.

  8. Er, I forgot to give the spelling, which is Lueger.

  9. so I withdraw my call for tarring and feathering
    Whoa, whoa, whoa, let’s not be to hasty. These are journalists we’re talking about.

  10. fimus scarabaeus says

    Most of the modern work to-day, in so many fields , the motto is “adequacy is enough”
    Who wants crafted work, it takes to long, it be in the rubbish bin tomorrow.

  11. Wikipedia is a fabulously useful resource, but it’s dangerously uneven. On some topics it offers the best article available anywhere; on some, the worst. (I am proud of my involvement with an extremely thorough article in the first category, where Britannica and everyone else are shown up as rather shabby.) Often a good article will be internally uneven, too. That’s the way of the wiki.
    The handling of pronunciations is generally poor: they are absent, IPA-ridden to the point of being practically useless, or plain wrong. I sometimes raise here the matter of stress in a word or sentence, and I find myself wanting to address that in Wikipedia also. A minutely nuanced IPA pronunciation that does not mark stress is a failure, I say. People do need to be informed, I say, that Carmina Burana, Terra Incognita, and organum are not originally stressed as they had thought.
    But my favourite bad pronunciation is still in a printed dictionary. Australia’s own Macquarie: in acciaccatura they reverse the /k/ and the /tch/ sounds, and more. O, I seem to have railed at length already about that. Sorry!

  12. Somehow I learned the inverted pronunciation and even an erroneous spelling in the U.S. I thought it was “accacciatura”. I probably haven’r pronounced the word or heard it pronounced since a music class in 1967 or so (or possibly a later music calss around 1979).

  13. I reprint Noetica’s earlier comment here for its vigor and expressiveness:
    Andrew, the Macquarie’s pronunciations are not worth a knob of goatshit. It has “acciaccatura” pronounced “a-catch-a-TYOO-ra”. Honestly, I wouldn’t have a Macquarie in the house. It is a cheap adaptation of a third-rate American dictionary from the ’40s, into which it introduces fresh errors for the purpose of making it our own.
    But Claire, an Australian linguist, said:
    Noetica, that’s a fairly widespread pronunciation of acciaccatura. I learnt violin and piano for many years and heard all sorts of variations, but /ækiətʃurə/ or /ækætʃətʃurə/ were the most common.
    I too have heard the “incorrect” pronunciations more often. On the other hand, it should please Noetica to know that both Merriam-Webster and American Heritage give only the Italianate pronunciation—no sloppy anglicizations even as alternates!

  14. I protest Noetica’s demeaning attitude toward knobs of goatshit.

  15. michael farris says

    Me too, I’m sure the knobs of goatshit community is deeply hurt by his insensitive remarks.

  16. To be fair, that was three years ago; he may have come to have a more sensitive attitude toward goatshit in the meantime.

  17. I am resolute in contemning knobs of goatshit, but I have relented concerning the Macquarie. I will and do have one in the house – a big one, in fact. Since I am now working as a professional editor, I feel obliged to allow it a place next to the more respectable works of reference. Can’t have an incomplete collection.
    Meanwhile, thanks to the enigmatic Wikipedia nonce-editor Xueexueg, who has fixed the entry for olla podrida. The edit summary:
    08:39, 5 February 2008 (hist) (diff) Olla podrida‎ (→History – Major changes to etymology section after the debacle at http://languagehat.com/archives/003019.php)
    Now we must add a note about the pronunciation, which in Spanish is surely with /j/ (or similar), but which is normally with /l/ in English mouths.

  18. michael farris says

    I think in the US enough people are familiar with Spanish orthography and (new world) Spanish pronunciation that an approximation of [j] would also be encountered. It’s definitely what I would say.
    As a side note, much to amazement, languagehat.com is not even on the first page of google for ‘goatshit’. Who’d have thought so many other people were writing about that?

  19. Hey! I’m not a nonce editor. I’m just part of Wikipedia’s long tail. I wish I wrote Spanish well enough to fix the Spanish Wikipedia entry.

  20. No offence intended, Orion. Well done!
    Michael, as for /j/ versus /l/, the Rest of the World knows less Spanish than the US does. That’s why “we” usually stress oregano on its third syllable, and often pronounce a /w/ for the u in Miguel.
    LH-ards, be reassured: a Google search with horseshit and chickenshit as the terms has Languagehat firmly at the top of the list.

  21. Actually, Wikipedia (as ugly as the behavior of its oolies can too often be) quietly nails this one. So quietly that no one here, or at W. (given how the article goes on from there), or at the Times seems to have noticed it:

    The beans are traditionally prepared in a clay pot over several hours (hence its name) until they become soft.

    (The italics are mine. A pot of stew cooked slowly (originally for days) has been “podrido”. I suspect that this may have been because the smell turned just a little ripe and the meat became flaccid as if rotted or because pudrir is a close synonym of fermentar.
    The various recipes of modern olla podrida may or may not (probably not) have been existing recipes in the Middle Ages when most members of the lower classes had their common stew pot continually cooking (pudriendo) the days’ meals.

  22. Jonathan Mayhew says

    That particular etymology, false or not, is pretty common in the Spanish speaking world. In fact, I can’t say with absolute certainty that it is false, though I believe it to be.

  23. From long ago I remember a little snippet from one of the great Spanish poets ca. 1932 or so, perhaps Alberti, grumbling about Madrid’s pervasive smell of boiled vegetables. I wonder if it was the podrida he was grumbling about.

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