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Receipt versus recipe

Q From Jonathon Williams and many other subscribers: In your item on fudge, you quoted a newspaper that referred to a receipt for the sweetmeat. Not recipe?

A Receipt is an old form that means the same as recipe. Both derive from Latin recipere, to receive or take. Receipt was first used in medieval English as a formula or prescription for a medicinal preparation (Chaucer is the first known user, in the Canterbury Tales of about 1386). The sense of “a written statement saying that money or goods have been received” only arrived at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

The apothecary's symbol for 'receipe', a capital letter R with a bar through the leg

Recipe is the imperative, “take!”, from the same Latin verb. It was traditionally the first word in a prescription, heading the list of ingredients. This was often abbreviated to a letter R with a bar through the leg, a form that still sometimes appears on modern prescription forms. Recipe has been used alongside receipt since the eighteenth century in the sense of cookery instructions, gradually replacing it over time. At the time the newspaper report was written, 1895, receipt was still common.

It’s by no means entirely defunct even today. It is often — but by no means always — a deliberate archaism. John Wilson noted, “It was used on British television, up to the late 1990s, on the programme Two Fat Ladies, featuring Clarissa Dickson Wright and the late Jennifer Paterson, who invariably spoke of receipts. She said this with (metaphorical) relish and I feel sure she did it for effect as a conscious statement of her background and style.”

But many other subscribers have told me that it has survived until recently in parts of the English-speaking world, especially the United States. Douglas G Wilson confirms this: “I heard it routinely in the 1960s, though only from older people. The Dictionary of American Regional English seems to suggest that it became more-or-less obsolete around 1960. William and Mary Morris wrote in their column Words, Wit, and Wisdom in 1970, ‘Throughout New England and in rural areas in many other parts of the country, you will still hear receipt more often than recipe.’ So at least the Morrises thought it was still very widely current in 1970.”

Page created 10 Feb. 2007

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Last modified: 10 February 2007.