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Hush puppy

Q From Jim Austin: Do you know the origin of the American term hush puppy? Hush puppies are little balls of seasoned, deep-fried dough (usually made with corn meal), often served as a side dish or appetizer in the South. I’ve heard two tales about the origin of the name but I don’t know if either one is true. The first is that Confederate soldiers during the Civil War kept their dogs quiet while they were cooking by feeding them fried dough balls. Thus, ‘hush, puppy.’ Considering the hunger and privation prevalent in much of the Confederate army, this strikes me as probably untrue. The second is that Cajuns in southern Louisiana used to eat a type of salamander they called a mud puppy. They weren’t too tasty plain, so folks would dip ’em in corn meal and fry ’em. Supposedly the term just grew from there. I doubt that story, too, since my dad’s family is from southern Louisiana, and while they fry a whole lot of things to eat, salamanders ain’t one of them. Can you shed any light on the subject?

A I’m glad you told this ignorant Brit what hush puppies are: for a moment I had a vision of Southerners eating fried shoes.

The salamander story is retold in William and Mary Morris’s The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins with some extra information, including other names for the salamanders of water dog or water puppy. The article claims that they were hardship food, not something you’d want everybody to know you were reduced to eating, therefore hush, keep quiet about it. It does sound rather unlikely as an explanation, I do agree.

The Civil War story is probably an example of folk etymology trying to fix a definite date on something whose origin is obscure. The phrase isn’t actually recorded until 1918. That doesn’t rule out a Confederate association, because the term had probably been around in the spoken language for decades by then, but I would doubt it goes so far back as that conflict (The Morrises instead point to the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, but they don’t give evidence for saying that, though they’re presumably thinking of the great poverty in the South after the War).

The story that seems to be most accepted is a variation of your second one. People cooking outdoors would fry up these little cakey bits along with their other food as a side delicacy and would feed a few to the dogs to keep them quiet while the humans were eating (Hence “Hush, puppies!” as another way of saying “Quiet, dogs!”). Whether this happened at a barbecue or a hunters’ camp depends on who is telling the story.

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Page created 5 Jan. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 5 January 2002.