cold cuts

Recently I wondered about the story of cold cuts ‘lunch meat’, an Adj + N composite that is not particularly transparent semantically (in fact, lunch meat isn’t fully transparent either). There’s some interesting linguistic history here. But there’s clearly also some substantial cultural history to be uncovered, and for this I don’t have the resources.

Background from Wikipedia:

Lunch meats — also known as cold cuts, luncheon meats, sandwich meats, cooked meats, sliced meats, cold meats, and deli meats [my preferred term is lunch meat, with the SG M noun meat rather than PL C meats] — are precooked or cured meat, often sausages or meat loaves, that are sliced and served cold or hot on sandwiches or on party trays. They can be bought pre-sliced in vacuum packs at a supermarket or grocery store, or they can be purchased at a delicatessen or deli counter, where they might be sliced to order.

Illustations: deli meats, pre-packaged lunch meat (and cheese), a platter of lunch meat (and cheese) and accompaniments:




Form. The form of the names is of two types: N + N compounds (sandwich meats, deli meats, luncheon meat(s), lunch meat(s)) and Adj + N composites (cooked meats, sliced meats, cold meats, cold cuts), but all have the “compound accent” pattern, with primary accent on thew first word. So cold cuts is like White House or blackbird — Adj + N in form, but with compound accent and with non-compositional semantics (even though the White House is white, blackbirds are black, and cold cuts are cold).

History. OED2 has entries for ony two of these composite expressions: luncheon meat

a type of pre-cooked meat containing preservatives. [first cite 1945]

and cold cuts

[translating German kalter Aufschnitt] orig. U.S. an assortment of cooked meats, sliced and served cold; occas. in sing. [first cite 1945]

Aufschnitt is a masculine noun (hence the adjective form kalter) meaning, in this context, ‘a cut, slice’, related to the verb aufschneiden, with relevant meanings ‘to cut off, carve, slice’

The cultural context. So much for the basic linguistic facts. I am, first of all, surprised at the recency of terms for the food category COLD-SLICED-PRECOOKED-MEAT. Foodstuffs in this category have been around for a very long time in the eating practices of European countries generally. But apparently it’s been only recently that the category itself has become culturally significant, perhaps through the spread of a “sandwich culture”, in which foodstuffs in this category play a central role.


Meanwhile, the involvement of German in American English cold cuts points to another cultural development, namely the spread of delicatessens, typically run by German speakers (especially German-speaking Jews) or their descendants

From Wikipedia:

Delicatessen is a term meaning “delicacies,” or “fine foods.” In English, “delicatessen” originally meant only specially prepared food. In time, the delicatessen store where this food was sold came to be called a delicatessen, often abbreviated to deli.

Delicatessen is a German loanword that first appeared in English in 1889. It is the plural form of Delikatesse. In German, it was originally a French loanword, délicatesse, meaning “delicious things (to eat).” The root word is the Latin adjective delicatus, meaning “giving pleasure, delightful, pleasing.”

The modern German version is spelled Delikatessen, which may have helped support the alternative popular etymology that the –essen part of the word derives from the German verb essen (English: to eat), or the noun das Essen (English: the food).

In Europe, delicatessen has a different meaning than in the United States, as it designates top-quality (and top-price) foodstuffs, stores and counters. In German-speaking countries a common synonym is Feinkost, meaning fine food, and the shops that sell them are called Feinkostläden (“stores for delicacies”). Department stores often have a Delikatessenabteilung (“delicacies department”).

In the United States, a delicatessen store, or deli, is a type of business that could be described as a synthesis of a grocery store and a restaurant. The delicatessen store offers a wider and fresher menu than those found at chain fast food restaurants, rarely employing fry machines (except for chicken), and routinely preparing sandwiches to order. They may also serve hot foods kept on a steam table, like a cafeteria. They sell cold cuts by weight and prepare party trays. Delicatessen stores vary greatly in size but are typically not as large as grocery stores. In areas with high rents for retail space, delicatessen stores are often quite small.

In addition to made-to-order sandwiches, many U.S. delicatessens offer made-to-order green salads. Equally common is a selection of prepared pasta, potato, chicken, tuna, shrimp, or other variety of “wet” salads, displayed underneath the counter and bought by weight or on a sandwich. Precooked chicken (usually in roasted and fried varieties), shrimp, cheese, or eggplant dishes, (possibly fried or parmigiana style) are found frequently. Delis can be either strictly take-out, a sit-down restaurant, or mixture of both.

And frequently an American deli will also offer specifically Jewish food — bagels and lox, of course, and chopped liver and pickled herring, but also gefilte fish, kreplach, and the like.

The Carnegie Deli in midtown Manhattan:


There’s a lot of cultural history to be written here.

One Response to “cold cuts”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Side note on compound accents: In my idiolect (born and raised in New York City). sour cream is one such, but I discovered as an adult that in some other parts of the country it is not, but rather the two words get approximately equal accent. As a result, I was an adult before I ever thought about the fact that the foodstuff that I knew as “sour cream” was in fact cream that gone sour (albeit in a controlled fashion).

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: