The Many Languages of Breakfast
The words used to discuss food often relay information about the cultures they come from
In an Italian restaurant in Valencia last summer, a well-meaning waiter, noting my limited grasp of his language, winked and slipped me a menu with a discreet little Union Jack insignia on the front. I smiled gratefully, but quickly discovered that the literal “English” descriptions of the dishes—phrases like “tubes with ridges” and “spinach pillows,” gamely translated from the Italian by the Spaniards who ran the restaurant—were more disorienting than helpful. The waiter was right to assume I couldn’t discuss lasagne or spaghetti alla puttanesca (literally spaghetti “in the style of a prostitute”) with him in Spanish, but it took us both a minute to realize we’d have a better go at it in some approximation of Italian. What the menu translator (and I, momentarily paralyzed with monolingual guilt) had missed is that “borrowed” dishes tend to retain some version of their “foreign” names, regardless of who’s doing the borrowing. In the pasta aisle of any supermarket in the U.S., it’s orrechiette, not “little ears”; vermicelli, not “worms.”
These crossovers are nothing new, of course. In his book The Language of Food, Stanford linguist Dan Jurafsky suggests that food words serve as a record of centuries, even millennia, of globalization: American-style ketchup—the word and the thing—descends from a kind of Chinese fish sauce; macaroon, macaron, and macaroni stem from the same root; and avocado, tomato, chocolate, and chile came to English from the Aztec language Nahuatl. Though the spellings and recipes almost always evolve over time, it’s never been efficient to slap a brand-new name on an imported dish; more often, the foreignness of both the word and the food simply fades with time. Today, food terms from other languages make up a significant percentage of the words added to English dictionaries every year.
This is as at least as true at breakfast as at any other meal: omelets and croissants, cappuccino and espresso, huevos rancheros and chilaquiles, chai and dosa, even congee—they might strike our palates as more or less familiar, but when their names hit our menus, they tend to stick. Breakfast foods are foreign until, suddenly, they aren’t.
But while we have more and more dishes to choose from, the vocabulary around the experience of the breakfast ritual in other cultures seems to have remained stubbornly resistant to import. A banana may be a universally convenient snack but only in Malay is there a phrase, pisan zapra, for the amount of time it takes to consume one. Non-Muslims know nothing of suḥūr, the pre-dawn meal eaten while fasting for the month of Ramadan. And in English we have no equivalent for sobremesa, the Spanish word for the period spent enjoying conversation around the table after everyone has finished eating.
There are breakfast-related idioms, too: In Polish, to insist that something is easy, you say “Bułka z masłem,” meaning “it’s a buttered roll”—similar to our “piece of cake.” In Italian, for when things aren’t going according to plan, there’s “Non tutte le ciambelle riescono col buco,” or “not all doughnuts come out with a hole.”
What does it say about us that we’ve borrowed a great many coffee drinks from Italian but not culaccino, the term for the mark left on the table by a moist glass, or abbiocco, a name for drowsiness after a big meal? Why in the Ghanaian Buti language is there a word, pelinti, for moving too-hot food around in your mouth, when there isn’t one in ours? How have only the Georgians come up with shemomedjamo, for continuing to eat something delicious long after you’re full? In English we’ve flirted with the pseudo-Yiddish schmear, but not pålegg, the all-purpose Norwegian word for anything (from Nutella to herring) that you might spread on toast.
As Lauren Collins notes in her New Yorker essay about falling in love with a Frenchman, these apparently untranslatable words and phrases are irresistible: “They’re fun to say,” she writes. “They’re funny to think about, in their Seinfeldian particularity. They expand and concentrate the world, making it bigger-spirited while at the same time more specific.”
And once you start looking, it’s easy to see patterns. In Swedish tretår is a second refill of coffee, fika is a long chat with a friend over coffee and snacks, and gökotta means to get up early and go outside with the purpose of hearing the first birds sing. That all makes the Swedes sound like an alert, industrious people—at least compared to the French, who have seigneur-terraces, people who linger too long in cafes without spending much money, and la pedze, the word for a guest who has overstayed his welcome or can’t drag himself from the table at the end of a meal.
Though language and culture are linked—Jurafsky points out that there is no exact Chinese word for dessert because a sweet course at the end of the meal was not traditionally a part of the “grammar” of the cuisine—there’s a danger in assuming that these special words reflect fundamental differences in how speakers of various languages experience the world. That Eskimos have 100 words for snow turns out to be a myth, Collins writes, arguing that “even if some languages express certain concepts more artfully, or more succinctly, it’s precisely because we recognize the phenomena to which they refer that we’re delighted” by a word like the German kummerspeck, for “grief bacon:” the weight gained from sorrow.
Our relationship to foreign food words also changes to suit our own culinary fashions. For decades, Jurafsky notes, high-end American restaurants signaled their fanciness by over- and misusing French terms on their menus—yielding tortured constructions such as “Flaming Coffee Diablo, Prepared en Vue of Guest” and “Le Crabmeat Cocktail.” More recently, though, that hierarchical view of cuisine has been pushed out by an emphasis on cultural omnivorousness: Eating (and knowing how to pronounce the words for) lots of different types of ethnic cuisines is now one way to prove culinary sophistication.
That cultural cosmopolitanism has its limits. In many cities, Americans have adopted the Hong Kong custom of yum cha, “enjoying tea” over the brunchtime small-plates meal of dim sum, literally “a touch of the heart.” But the Armenian tradition of khash (literally “to boil”), a broth of cow’s or pig’s feet cooked overnight and consumed with lavash and vodka on the first morning of winter, seems less likely to catch on.
Ella Francis Sanders, the author and illustrator of a compendium of “untranslatable” words, writes that their familiarity is a reminder that we are “fundamentally, intrinsically bound to every single person on the planet with language and feelings.”
But as we trade them over our fashionably international brunches, cursing the Extrawunsch (person who slows everything down by being fussy) of the group, perhaps they can also serve as a reminder of how much there is still to learn. The thrill of tasting an unfamiliar dish, the joy in finding a word for a feeling you could never quite name—these are beginnings, not endings. Knowing the Italian for all the pasta shapes has never been a substitute for going to Italy, and even when you speak the same language, you don’t know what’s in the heart of a fellow breakfast eater until you ask.