Semantic change on the menu

The names of food preparations are incredibly variable: the same dish goes under different names; the “same dish” (under a single name) is prepared differently by different people; and sometimes these referential differences amount to a semantic split.

Two cases that I’ve been thinking about recently. (There are ridiculously many examples, and I don’t propose to survey them. These are just two cases that happen to have caught my attention.)

Case 1: What is bruschetta? (Let’s get the pronunciation issue out of the way. In the original Italian, the SCH (with CH before E) represents [sk], but many English speakers, both in the U.S. and the U.K., have [ʃ] instead.)

The dish apparently originated as a way of salvaging bread that was going stale (any number of preparations had such frugal beginnings). There are local variants, differing in how complex the dish is, as in this March 2003 draft entry from the OED:

An Italian appetizer or side dish consisting of toasted bread spread with olive oil, usually seasoned and rubbed with garlic, and sometimes (chiefly in non-Italian versions of the dish) topped with chopped tomatoes, etc. [for the Italian word, cf. bruscare ‘to roast’]

This definition doesn’t cover the bruschetta that I regularly have at a local restaurant: a chopped tomato salad with a basil vinaigrette, no toast. That is, in an act of metonymy, the name for the whole dish is used for the topping alone (moreover, a topping that wasn’t originally part of the dish). Semantic split. Now you have to find out what a restaurant means when it lists bruschetta on its menu.

Case 2: What is marinara (sauce)? The Italian original is (alla) marinara ‘sailor-fashion’. The OED draft entry of March 2009:

Designating any of various Italian dishes or sauces (esp. a spicy tomato sauce traditionally made in Naples) whose ingredients are suggestive either of food formerly served on board ships (by the absence of fresh produce such as cheese or cream, or by the liberal use of herbs, spices, etc.) or of the sea itself (by the use of seafood). Freq. as postmodifier. Also as n.

Here the OED entertains two possibilities as to what counts as sailor-fashion in tomato sauces: specifically involving seafood, or just shipboard fare. It’s not entirely clear which is the older usage in English, though the seafood usage seems to be the dominant one outside the U.S.; Australians, for instance, are frequently baffled by the absence of clams or other seafood in the marinara they are offered in the U.S., and Americans (for whom marinara sauce is just a simple tomato sauce with herbs) feel obliged to stipulate the presence of marine protein if there’s some in the sauce.

If the seafood usage is the older one (as many people seem to assume), then the American seafood-neutral usage is a semantic widening.

7 Responses to “Semantic change on the menu”

  1. lynneguist Says:

    I’ve never seen a seafood-less marinara in the UK, and it’s one of those things that I feel that I need to avoid using at all in order to avoid misinterpretation…

  2. Licia Says:

    In Italian, alla marinara refers to recipes that involve seafood, with one major exception, pizza alla marinara (tomato sauce, garlic, oregano and oil).

  3. Rick Barr Says:

    “Americans (for whom marinara sauce is just a simple tomato sauce with herbs) feel obliged to stipulate the presence of marine protein if there’s some in the sauce.”
    This sentence confused me. Did you mean “[…] if they want there to be some in the sauce”? Since the American marinara sauce has no seafood, it would seem you were using “stipulate” as “to forgo” or something along those lines.

  4. arnoldzwicky Says:

    A further development on the bruschetta front: Not only can bruschetta be used for just the topping, in particular as a kind of side salad, it can also be used for the topping on breadstuffs other than (toasted) breads — for instance, as a pizza topping. There are plenty of recipes for bruschetta pizza, and commercial frozen bruschetta pizzas are available.

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