I know that many of you can hardly wait for World Dictionary Day on Friday of next week, and I am sure you are planning your celebrations already. My own plan - or challenge, if you like – in the build-up to the day, is to entertain you with some posts inspired by food words. These little stories are especially dedicated to fellow logophiles and writers, and of course, every marvelous librarian and other type of book custodian in the galaxy.
Firstly, to explain World Dictionary Day. This is celebrated on the anniversary of te birth of Noah Webster in colonial Connecticut in 1758. Webster was a lexicographer, educationist, and spelling reformer who produced his first word-book, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language in 1783, a blue-bound text which remained a school-room classic for over a century. In 1806 he published his first dictionary-proper, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. It was another two decades before (in 1828), the work for which he is best known was published - the two-volume American Dictionary of the English Language.
Today, to start things off, I want to consider the food-word ‘grub.’
Interestingly, the 1857 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language does not contain any food-related uses of the word ‘grub’. I find this surprising, as the Oxford English Dictionary cites the first written occurrence of the word as referring to food as being in 1659. The reference is from A Dialogue betwixt an Exciseman and Death, which is “transcribed from a printed copy in the British Museum” and appears in Ancient Poems, Ballads, and Songs of the Peasantry of England, published in 1846.
Let's joyne together; I'le pass my word this night
Shall yield us grub, before the morning light.
It seems strange to me that a word in use in England in 1659 did not find its way into a nineteenth century American dictionary. Perhaps it was lost in the migration. Or perhaps I have simply not done enough research.
So, let us see what else the OED has to say about the word “grub. As a slang expression, it means “Food or Provender of any kind.” No surprises there. The etymology is related to the verb, “to grub”, meaning “to dig superficially; to break up the surface of the ground,” and has very old Germanic roots. No doubt the meaning of grub as food relates to the foraging for, or storage of, very basic root crops, or perhaps even grubs as “larvae of insects …”
Other dictionaries, you ask?
The English writer Samuel Johnson’s famous work A Dictionary of the English Language was first published in 1755, so pre-dated Webster’s seminal work by over seven decades. It gives the noun ‘grub’ as having two meanings: (1) a small worm, and (2) a short thick man, a dwarf. Hmmm … no food reference, in spite of the OED’s (admittedly second-hand) citation from 1659. I find it hard to believe that Johnson made an error of omission. Methinks one of us ought to find a copy of A Dialogue betwixt an Exciseman and Death, and check the authenticity of the reference. When one of us has the time, of course.
Time is fleeting however, so proper research must wait. In the meanwhile, may I give you a recipe from a cookery book published in the same year as Samuel Johnson’s dictionary? I have chosen Poor Knights of Windsor, a variation on the theme of French toast from A New and Easy Method of Cookery, by Elizabeth Cleland (Edinburgh, 1755.) I have given a recipe for a World War II version of Poor Knights of Windsor previously, so I thought it might be an interesting comparison – and very fine grub indeed.
Poor Knights of Windsor.
Take a Roll, and cut it into Slices; soke them in Sack [sherry], then dip them in Yolks of Eggs, and fry them; serve them up with beat Butter, Sack, and Sugar.
Huh. The German name for a french-toast-like dessert translates directly into English as "poor knights", too.
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