On Kitchens and Cooking

People agonise over what colour to paint their kitchens, how the cabinets should be, whether or not to tile the walls and so on. Opinions and tastes abound, but the one thing they all have in common is that the purpose of the kitchen is cooking.

The word ‘kitchen’ is of course inextricably bound with ‘cooking’; their history goes hand-in-hand. Let’s start with ‘kitchen’. Going back to Middle English, I have a short line that I hope will bring a smile to your face. It is from the Works of Sir Thomas Mallory, dating to 1470.

Thou smellyst all of the kychyn.

(You smell totally of the kitchen.)

One would hope that this is not a clumsy attempt at a compliment – the recipient of such praise might not be very impressed! Here, at that time, the word is very much like the term we know today, and indeed in other spellings from the period such as kicchen and kichoun, it can still be recognised. But let’s look at an earlier point. Our next quote comes from Layamon’s Brut, a Middle English poem also known as the Chronicle of Britain and dating to the late twelfth century.

Weoren in þeos kinges cuchene twa hundred cokes

(Two hundred cooks were in this king’s kitchen)

Two hundred cooks may seem a little excessive for one kitchen; after all, we say today that too many of them spoil the broth!

In this reference, the word for ‘kitchen’ is cuchene, a word that suggests a slightly different pronunciation, over 250 years before Mallory. From here, we shall go back further in time and examine the word in Old English.

This time, our reference is taken from The Homilies of Ælfric, translated by Thorpe during the 1840s, and dating to around the year 990.

Ðæt seó cycene eal forburne

(That the kitchen was all burning)

Setting aside the dangers of using real fires and flames in your kitchen, let’s turn our attention to the word. So here we have the form cycene. Still recognisable at a stretch. It is at this point that we turn our attention once again to the purpose of the room; cooking.

Our Old English term, cycene, comes from Proto-Germanic *kokina. This form gave rise to cognates such as Dutch keuken, German Küche, Danish køkken, Norwegian kjøkken and others.

You may be thinking that there is a similarity between these words and their counterparts in other European languages, such as Italian cucina, French cuisine, Portuguese cozinha, Spanish cocina and so on. Well, there is a reason for that. They all derive from Vulgar Latin *cocina, itself an alternative form of Latin coquina, meaning ‘kitchen’. Unsurprisingly, this comes from coquere, meaning ‘to cook’. This Latin word has gone into so many languages, from Modern (Demotic) Greek κουζίνα [kouzina] to Welsh cegin, Slovenian and Croatian kuhinja, Polish kuchnia and even Albanian kuzhinë, and more besides.

Latin was generous in its gifts to English, providing not only kitchen but also cook by means of coquere; the two go together in meaning, in history and etymology. And what of coquere itself? Where did it come from? It derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *pekw-, which would have meant ‘to cook’. This was the source of the Greek πέψη, πέψις [pepsi, pepsis]. And guess what we get from pepsis? Dyspepsia, of course. So the same root gave rise to words for both the method of preparation and the possible effect of the food on us.