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Ketchup versus catsup

Q From Suzanne: Why is ketchup also called catsup?

A Ketchup was one of the earliest names given to this condiment, so spelled in Charles Lockyer’s book of 1711, An Account of the Trade in India: “Soy comes in Tubbs from Jappan, and the best Ketchup from Tonquin; yet good of both sorts are made and sold very cheap in China”. Nobody seems quite sure where it comes from, and I won’t bore you with a long disquisition concerning the scholarly debate on the matter, which is reflected in the varied origins given in major dictionaries. It’s likely to be from a Chinese dialect, imported into English through Malay. The original was a kind of fish sauce, though the modern Malay and Indonesian version, with the closely related name kecap, is a soy sauce.

Like their Eastern forerunners, Western ketchups were dipping sauces. I’m told the first ketchup recipe appeared in Elizabeth Smith’s book The Compleat Housewife of 1727 and that it included anchovies, shallots, vinegar, white wine, sweet spices (cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg), pepper and lemon peel. Not a tomato in sight, you will note — tomato ketchup was not introduced until about a century later, in the US, and caught on only slowly. It was more usual to base the condiment on mushrooms, or sometimes walnuts.

The confusion about names started even before Charles Lockyer wrote about it, since there is an entry dated 1690 in the Dictionary of the Canting Crew which gives it as catchup, which is another Anglicisation of the original Eastern term. Catchup was used much more in North America than in Britain: it was still common in the middle years of the nineteenth century, as in a story in Scribner’s Magazine in 1859: “I do not object to take a few slices of cold boiled ham ... with a little mushroom catchup, some Worcester sauce, and a pickle or so”. Indeed, catchup continued to appear in American works for some decades and is still to be found on occasion.

There were lots of other spellings, too, of which catsup is the best known, a modification of catchup. You can blame Jonathan Swift for it if you like, since he used it first in 1730: “And, for our home-bred British cheer, Botargo, catsup, and caveer”. [Caveer is caviar; botargo is a fish-based relish made of the roe of the mullet or tunny.] That form was also once common in the US but is much less so these days, at least on bottle labels: all the big US manufacturers now call their product ketchup.

Simple question: complicated answer!

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 14 Jun. 2003

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Last modified: 14 June 2003.