Dedicated to Christi
If you are a fan of scallops, I expect that until now you have been more interested in eating them than in where their name comes from.
But just in case your curiosity has been piqued, I shall attempt to trace the history of the word. Let’s start with Middle English, where we are fortunate to find a wide variety of spellings, all reflecting the local accent. These include scalop, scalap, skalop, skalap, scalope, skalabe, calopp and skalappe. Indeed, you can even find two different spellings of the word in the same text, written by the same hand as you can see here, in the Churchwardens’ Accounts of the Parish of St. Mary, Thame, in Oxfordshire, dating from 1448:
A cope of Rede Sylk with the grond with white flowers & skalabes of gold.
(a large cloak of red silk with white flowers and golden scallops)
A sute of grene Satayn with skalappes, mones, & sterres of gold
(vestments of green satin with scallops, moons and golden stars)
In the first example, a /b/ sound is preferred, while the second uses /p/. I think this just serves to remind us how fluid and subject to change our language really is.
As you can see, in both cases, the scallops in question are decorations on clothing, as it was a popular device, and in religious contexts was known as the symbol of the Way of St James.
The word came into English from Old French escalope, which was an alternative form of eschalope, and meant “shell”. Despite this route into English, it is thought to have come from a Germanic source, as there are probable cognates in Germanic languages, such as Old Norse skalpr, which meant “sheath” Dutch schaal, meaning “shell” and even our modern English word shell.
This would mean that it comes from Proto-Germanic *skælo, meaning “split, divide”, and from there we can trace the path further back, to Proto-Indo-European and the root *(s)kel-, signifying “cut, split”. This root gave rise to other cognates in other languages, such as Latin culter, modern Italian coltello, meaning “knife”, a handy tool to have around for your scallops!