Leek

There are many recipes for the humble leek; from pies to soups to risottos and much more. It is even an emblem of Wales, and its popularity has long been established.

So it is unsurprising that it should appear in many forms in Middle English in which we see lēk, lec, leike, leick, leok, lī̆k, leac and other similar spellings. The common feature to all is the presence of /l/ and /k/ phonemes.

We have an example from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from 1389:

Wel loued he garlek, oynons, and lekes

(He greatly loved garlic, onions and leeks).

In this particular quote, all the words are easily recognisable to speakers of Modern English. But let’s compare a sentence from 1150, a little earlier.

Nim piper and alewen and sealt and leaces sæd and meng eal togadere.

(Take pepper and aloe and salt and leek seed and mix it all together.)

This comes from the Peri Didaxeon, a twelfth century medical tract. The title is from Greek and means ‘On Teaching’. Already at this time, the language is harder to recognise.

Going back a little further, to Old English and the ninth century, Aelfric’s Grammar, a work designed to help students learn Latin, helpfully includes the example ðis leác hoc porrum (this leek).

Following on from that, there is a quote from Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of early England, a collection of works in Old English also from the ninth century, but published in the eighteenth century.

Ðæt greáta cráuleác; nim ðes leáces heáfda

(the great crow-garlic, to take the chief of leeks)

There are cognates of the word in other Germanic languages, such as Old Norse laukr, meaning leek or garlic; Modern Icelandic leki – ‘leek’; Danish løg, Swedish lök, meaning ‘onion’; Dutch look, meaning ‘leek’. Old Saxon had lok; Modern German gives us Lauch. All of these point to a root in Proto-Germanic: *lauka.

Unfortunately, this is where our trail ends. There are no indications of another source, and words in Finnish (laukka), Russian (luk) and other Slavic sources appear to have been borrowed from Germanic. Suggestions that it may be related to ‘lick’ cannot be supported.

Food

Here is a word for everyone. Everyone? I hear you ask. Yes, everyone. There is nobody that doesn’t eat; therefore food is something for us all. The only issue is what flavour it will be.

But here we are not concerned with flavours, at least not for today. We are going to look at the word itself. Where did it come from? And what is its history?

We shall start with Middle English, just a step back from our language of today. Here we can find several forms: fọ̄de, vode, foyde, fude, fudde, and also the very easily recognisable foode. In Middle English, the word meant ‘food’, much as we understand it today, but also ‘fuel’, and it could be used to refer to wood put on a fire, for example. Still today, we may talk of feeding a fire.

Now let’s take a look at the word in context. Our first example is from the Middle English Genesis and Exodus and dates to 1325.

to fode and srud, to helpen ðe lif.

[to give food and clothe, to help the life.]

Here, ‘feed’ and ‘food’ are the same word; the noun and the verb are identical. Let’s take a look at a reference from the Hali Meidenhad, which is a homily from 1225.

Þu speke þruppe of monnes help to flutunge mid fode

[you spoke to the homestead of men, help to provide with food]

In this case, although the word is exactly the same in form, it is used as a noun rather than the verb of the previous example. It is clear that it is not far removed from our word of today. But what about taking a step further back in time? Are there greater changes?

Well, changes there are indeed, but not enormous ones. Having gone through Middle English, it does not take a lot to recognise the form the word had in Old English. This time, our example comes from The Homilies of Ælfric and dates to around 990.

Búton ðam gódspellícan fódan

[without the spiritual food]

In this example, the form is fódan. While this is not enormously different from the fode of Middle English, it may appear even closer when I point out that Old English used a grammatical case system since lost to us, and that the nominative form of the word was fóda. This may put you in mind of fodder, and indeed, this word is from the same root and as such is a cognate of food.

There are cognates in other languages in the Germanic family, such as Swedish föda, Danish föde, German Futter. All of these point the way to an earlier common form, Proto-Germanic *fodon.

As sounds develop and evolve over the centuries, one frequent adaptation is the /p/ becoming an /f/. The most obvious example of this that comes to mind is in the words father and pater, but the phenomenon can also be seen within the same language, such as with πτερά [ptera], the ancient Greek word for ‘wings’ becoming φτερά [ftera] in Modern Greek.

We see the same thing here, as the distant root of ‘food’ in Proto-Indo-European is thought to be *pat-, a /p/ sound rather than /f/. The meaning is pasture, feed, protect, guard. Cognates have been traced in words such as ‘pasture’, pastor, which would simply have meant ‘feeder’, Latin panis, meaning ‘bread’, Avestan pitu, meaning ‘food’, and others.