Retraction watch: Irish roots of "french fries"?

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It's been a while since we had a post in the Prescriptivist Poppycock category. This example is more a case of badly-researched etymology, but we'll take what we can get, courtesy of Florent Moncomble, who writes:

In the May update of the prescriptive « Dire, ne pas dire » section of their website, in a post condemning « carottes fries » (for « carottes frites », as the past participle should go), they contend that the ‘French’ of ‘French fries’ has nothing to do with France but comes from an ‘Old Irish verb’ meaning ‘to mince’.

Sensing that that was absolute nonsense, I debunked the assertion on X in a thread that you can find here.

Specialists in Old Irish on X have joined in my (to remain polite) bemusement. Evidently the Immortels trusted the first page of a Google search and did not bother to actually fact-check this (apparently popular) myth. These are the people, paid with tax money, who we trust the official dictionary of the French language with.

I'm guessing that the « Dire, ne pas dire » entries are not written by one of les immortels, but rather by an all-too-mortel intern. Whoever wrote it, the full "Des carotte fries" advice is:

Le participe passé du verbe défectif frire est frit, mais on le rencontre surtout dans la forme substantivée au féminin pluriel, des frites, ellipse de des pommes de terre frites. Ce nom est devenu tellement courant qu’il tend à faire oublier son origine verbale et que l’on hésite parfois sur l’orthographe du participe : on trouve ainsi des menus où sont proposés des légumes fris ou des tomates fries, quand c’est bien sûr frits et frites qu’il aurait fallu écrire. Cette erreur est sans doute favorisée par le fait que nos frites se nomment fries en anglais. Rappelons, pour conclure, que lorsque les Anglo-Saxons emploient la locution complète french fries, french n’est pas un hommage à la gastronomie française mais une forme tirée d’un verbe du vieil irlandais qui ne signifie pas « français », mais « émincé ».

The Wiktionary entry gives the etymology for "French fries" as

Clipping of earlier French fried potatoes (1856) and French-fried potatoes, potatoes supposedly prepared in the French style.

with a footnote to the entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary, which notes that "The name is from the method of making them by immersion in fat, which was then considered a peculiarity of French cooking", with this explanation:

There are 2 ways of frying known to cooks as (1) wet frying, sometimes called French frying or frying in a kettle of hot fat; and (2) dry frying or cooking in a frying pan. The best results are undoubtedly obtained by the first method, although it is little used in this country. ["The Household Cook Book," Chicago, 1902]

The 1856 citation is to [Eliza] Warren, Cookery for Maids of All Work:

French Fried Potatoes.—Cut new potatoes in thin slices, put them in boiling fat, and a little salt; fry both sides of a light golden brown colour; drain dry from fat, and serve hot.

The OED has the same citation in their "French fried potatoes" entry, but antedates Wiktionary's 1903 citation for "French fries" with

1886  Savannah Morning News  Clam chowder, white fish and flannel cakes, spring chickens, and Saratoga chips and French fries

The "Irish" etymology is Out There, but Laurent Moncomble debunks it:

Dernière étape, devinez quoi, il existe des dictionnaires de vieil irlandais, dont celui-ci, consultable en ligne.
Et là, on a beau chercher 'cut', 'slice', 'mince', on ne trouve rien qui ressemble de près ou de loin à 'french'. Au cas où, une recherche dans un dictionnaire d'irlandais contemporain ne donne rien non plus. 'Cut/slice' se dit 'gearr', 'mince' se dit 'mionaigh'…

Last step, guess what, there are Old Irish dictionaries, including this one, available online.
And there, no matter how much we search for 'cut', 'slice', 'mince', we find nothing that even remotely resembles 'french'. Along the same lines, a search in a dictionary of contemporary Irish does not give nothing neither. 'Cut/slice' is 'gearr', 'mince' is  'mionaigh'…

He ends the thread by promising

Après, si un·e #gaeilgeoir confirme les dires de l'Académie, je ferai amende honorable.

Afterwards, if a #gaeilgeoir confirms the Academy's statements, I will apologize.

I should note that there's another etymological myth for "French fries" out there, namely the idea that they were first served at a food stand associated with the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, run by a man named Fletcher Davis who came from Athens, Texas. Davis (supposedly) told a reporter that he learned to cook the potatoes that way from a friend in Paris, Texas. The reporter (supposedly) thought he meant Paris, France, and used the term "french-fried potatoes" in his story.

Given the earlier citations for the phrase, this story (even if true) is clearly not its origin — though I think it's a better myth than the one about borrowing from Irish…

 



25 Comments »

  1. Gene Buckley said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 10:49 am

    I recently listened to an interesting podcast episode that goes into some detail about whether this product is originally French or Belgian. I'm glad that the Irish hypothesis was, as far as I recall, not mentioned.

    https://gastropod.com/super-fry-the-fight-for-the-golden-frite/

  2. Lawrence Garfield said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 11:46 am

    Lurker* stickin' his neck out…

    Doesn't "French" refer to the julienne cut rather than the frying? That is, they would be French fried-potatoes rather than French-fried potatoes. Some foods (carrots, celery, etc.) are julienned or French-cut but not fried, and other foods (latkes, grits, etc.) are fried in oil but not julienned or French-cut.

    Then there are "freedom fries," which can be any way you like 'em, but if they happen to look like french fries, don't be surprised if some folks misunderstand.

    *semi-retired technical translator (JP-EN, ZH-EN)

  3. AntC said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 4:39 pm

    Good thought, Lawrence. Wikip has references to such fries in France (1775) that long predate myl's cites.

    A note in a manuscript in U.S. president Thomas Jefferson's hand (circa 1801–1809) mentions "Pommes de terre frites à cru, en petites tranches" ("Potatoes deep-fried while raw, in small slices"). The recipe almost certainly comes from his French chef, Honoré Julien.

    Your 'julienne' seems coincidence unconnected with Jefferson's chef.

    That wikip page mentions the France/Belgium dispute, but thinks Spain 1673 might be the earliest ref.

  4. Peter Taylor said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 4:54 pm

    I've also seen claims that French fries were so called by GIs who encountered them in 1944-1945 in Belgium and didn't know what country they were in, but the date makes that idea obviously false.

    @Lawrence Garfield, in the spirit of prescriptionism I feel obliged to point out that most roughly-cuboid fried potatoes are cut somewhere between batonnet and pont-neuf. Julienne is a very fine cut. But the claim that "Frenched" means "chopped into strips" is essentially the claim at issue without the Irish angle (émincé is probably better translated chopped here than minced). I've also seen this one before. The problem is that all of the culinary citations for the verb french found by the compilers of the OED appear to refer to preparing meat by separating the bone.

  5. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 5:18 pm

    Ok but “French-cut” – meaning “julienne” – describes how the potatoes are cut to make fries, so I had always thought they were “French(-cut) fried potatoes”, like “French-cut green beans”.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julienning

  6. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 5:21 pm

    Hmph. I *thought * I had refreshed the page before commenting, but apparently didn’t. My apologies for repeating what Lawrence said.

  7. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 5:23 pm

    But now a real comment: @AntC – the Jefferson quote sounds to me like potato chips (Disks) rather than French fries (strings).

  8. ktschwarz said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 8:10 pm

    Lawrence Garfield, I'm afraid "French fries" = "French cut" is another urban legend, and you could have figured that out for yourself by reading the post: the name "French fried potatoes" was established for deep-fried potato pieces long before the stick shape became conventional. You can see that in the 1856 recipe quoted above that says to cut the potatoes "in thin slices", not sticks. And that's not an outlier, there are similar recipes in the next few decades; Barry Popik's page on French fries quotes an 1882 cookbook:

    Pare small uncooked potatoes. Divide them in halves, and each half in three pieces. Put in the frying basket and cook in boiling fat for ten minutes. Drain, and dredge with salt. Serve hot with chops or beefsteak. Two dozen pieces can be fried at one time.

    Search for "French frying" in Google Books, you'll find cookbooks in the late 1800s giving directions for frying anything, such as fish, with no particular shape. Directions to cut the potatoes into strips or sticks start appearing only in the 1890s. Finally, the name "French cut" for cutting food into strips didn't appear until even later; the OED's earliest citation is 1943.

    There's a reason why the stick shape didn't become popular earlier: Long sticks require large potatoes, which are relatively new. The Russet Burbank, overwhelmingly favored by restaurants for fries, wasn't developed until the late 1800s.

  9. Graeme Hirst said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 11:45 pm

    As noted in the Wikipedia entry, it remains a matter of contention as to whether "french" fries are of French or Belgian origin. The Friet Museum in Bruges is designed to leave you in no doubt.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_fries#Belgian_French_dispute
    https://frietmuseum.be/en/home-en/

  10. Florent Moncomble said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 9:35 am

    @Lawrence and @Michèle,
    It seems to me that if ‘French’ was an alteration of ‘frenched’ through elision, that would have resulted in ‘fried French(ed) potatoes’, considering that they are frenched before they’re fried. ‘French(ed) fried potatoes’ to me implies that they are cut after frying.

  11. Peter Grubtal said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 9:44 am

    ..another sloppy bit :
    les Anglo-Saxons emploient la locution complète french fries

    peevish correction: in the UK they are (potato) chips. French fries was purely an americanism.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 1:04 pm

    Pre- (indeed pro-) scriptive as I am, I nonetheless have to disagree with Peter G (above) in that both he and I are writing in the 21st century, so whilst I would have unreservedly have agreed had he written " in the UK they were traditionally [called / termed] '(potato) chips'", I am afraid that today we Britons call them French fries without hesitation. Of course, we will never sink to the level of referring to (potato) crisps as "chips", but that goes without saying …

  13. ktschwarz said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 1:32 pm

    Florent Moncomble, I was amused to learn from your x-thread that WTF has been borrowed into French!

    Your adjective-order explanation is suggestive but I don't think it's conclusive, considering that we do have "curly fries" and not "fried curlies". What's conclusive is the empirical evidence: the expressions "French cut", and "French" as a verb meaning 'cut into strips', didn't exist in English until almost 90 years after "French fried potatoes". This is a heavily researched topic, a lot of historians have searched, a lot of old recipes, ads, menus, etc. have been scrutinized, and not a single one mentions "frenched fried potatoes", "frenched fries", or "french-cut fried potatoes/fries". Those expressions never existed until recently, following the urban legend.

  14. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 2:03 pm

    @ktschwarz “What's conclusive is the empirical evidence”

    Cool. TIL, as the kids say these days. :-)

    Is there a name (as there is for eggcorns & snowclones, etc) for things that are seemingly named after places, but actually aren’t? For example: German chocolate cake.

  15. Lawrence Garfield said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 2:24 pm

    I thank the other posters for allowing me to see that I may have strayed from my domain.

    Nevertheless, I would like to add a few comments.

    (AntC) How did Massialot describe Julienne in the 1722 book? Is it the cut style?

    (ktschwarz) "thin slices" could also be interpreted as "sticks," or vice versa.

    (Florent Moncomble) "‘French(ed) fried potatoes’ to me implies that they are cut after frying." Why would you cut them after frying? Cutting first is the general practice, no? It exposes the surfaces and speeds cooking to the inside (IANAC). And I don't think the common word order is a technical specification of the process order.

    Perhaps more than one process, including cutting and frying, could be "Frenched," here meaning "called French." The question will be sliced and diced in many ways before being well-cooked.

  16. Florent Moncomble said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 2:29 pm

    @ktschwarz thanks!
    As far as ‘WTF’ is concerned, absolutely, as has the F-word itself, including with nativized spellings (« feuque ») or phonology (« fuque »)!

  17. Peter Grubtal said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 4:05 pm

    @Philip Taylor

    Well, "fish and chips" are still just that in the chip shops I patronise, and in Germany, and even in a fine restaurant in Paris last week, I noticed, the dish offered under that moniker.

    It's correct a lot of people would understand french fries nowadays.

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 5:17 pm

    I think that there is a difference between French fries and chips, Peter — French fries are (IMHO) thinner than traditional British chips, as served in fish and chips for example, and are more likely to be served as an accompaniment to a Hamburger or to Southern fried chicken.

  19. Scott P. said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 9:13 pm

    Well, "fish and chips" are still just that in the chip shops I patronise, and in Germany, and even in a fine restaurant in Paris last week, I noticed, the dish offered under that moniker.

    Even in the US the dish is called 'fish and chips' — 'chips' here is just a linguistic fossil.

  20. Peter Grubtal said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 11:03 pm

    Philip

    The clincher would be: what does Macdonald's in the UK call it's chips? They're more like French ponmes allumettes if IRC. I'm not in a position to check at the moment.

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    May 20, 2024 @ 7:57 am

    According to their UK web site, Peter, "Macdonald’s Fries". Image thereof at https://s7d1.scene7.com/is/image/mcdonalds/mcdonalds-fries-medium-april-promo:product-header-desktop

  22. RP said,

    May 20, 2024 @ 7:59 am

    While we're peeving can I note that the post has fallen for a faux ami. ‘Émincer’ does not mean ‘mince’, that’s ‘hacher’. ‘Émincer’ is slicing up in fine strips.

  23. Peter Grubtal said,

    May 20, 2024 @ 9:36 am

    Philip –

    yes, although it looks like a concerted attempt by the US firms to get UK consumers americanised in this. You'll find many people asking why fries and not chips.

  24. Philip Taylor said,

    May 20, 2024 @ 11:24 am

    It is (perhaps) the only Americanism to which I have ever given in gracefully. If we use "French fries" to denote the thin variety, and "chips" to denote the rather fatter traditional British chips, have we not gained a useful distinction in our language ?

  25. George said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 3:52 am

    Late to the party but just to say that Philip Taylor is correct in pointing out that the words 'fries' (more often found now without than with 'French' in my experience) and 'chips' do not refer to the same thing. (I'm Irish and we're with the British on this one.) I'm old enough to remember when it wasn't just a difference of form; chips were made with pieces of actual potato, while fries (which only arrived on this side of the Atlantic with the large American fast-food chains in the 1970s) were made using some sort of reconstituted potato powder. It's increasingly difficult to find 'real' chips today, although they still exist, just as 'real' fries still exist in the US.

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