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shameless pleading

Chow

It’s what’s for dinner.

Dear Word Detective:  My husband is retired military and he was talking earlier this evening about his early years in the service (I do mean early — he enlisted in 1954). He has often wondered how the expression “chow” came to be used for meals in the service, and although he has asked many people, no one seems to know. Can you help? — C.S.

Wow. 1954? That’s before Elvis was in the Army, back when it was possible to be insanely rich and still get drafted. Back when, if you stayed home from school, the only thing on TV was “December Bride.” Back when “Mad Men” meant loons like George Metesky (the New York City “Mad Bomber” with a grudge against Con Ed) and America looked to Joe Friday (or Hopalong Cassidy) for safety.  Or so I hear, since I’m only 39.

“Chow” meaning “food” in a general sense first appeared in the mid-19th century in the US. Its source seems to have been the English-Chinese pidgin term “chow chow,” also meaning “food.” A “pidgin” (pronounced “pid-jin”) language is a simplified version of a language developed to allow communication between two groups that do not share a common language; “chow chow” was listed in a pidgin glossary that was in use by British embassy personnel in China in the late 19th century. The connection of “chow chow” to any known Chinese word is shaky, but “ch’ao” or “ch’au” (both “to fry”) is a possibility. Bad jokes aside, there is no demonstrable connection between “chow chow” and the “Chow” dog breed, originally from China.

While the origin of “chow chow” may be murky, there’s no mystery about how the term  came to the US. The railroad system in this country, especially in the western states, was built in large part by many thousands of immigrant Chinese laborers. “Chow chow” and the simplified form “chow” were part of the Chinese-English pidgin that gradually percolated into American slang, especially in those two grand repositories of slang in any society, prisons and the armed forces. Today in the US we “chow down” on pizza with our “chow hound” friends, and though the word remains slightly informal, most folks haven’t a clue it came from China.

Speaking of military food, the term “mess” for a meal or place of eating (in that case, short for “mess hall”) seems weirdly, if mysteriously, derogatory to many people, probably because it implies an untidy or unsanitary scene. But the original meaning of “mess” in English was, in fact, “a serving of food; a meal,” from the Latin “missus” (“a placing”), the past participle of “mittere” (to put, place, send; the same verb gave us “mission”). First appearing in English in the 14th century, “mess” was also used to mean “great quantity” (“mess of fish”) as well as “several kinds of food mixed together” and “mixed food fed to animals,” which led to it meaning “confused situation” and “untidy or chaotic arrangement” (as in “My apartment’s a mess right now”). But the military use of “mess” is the original “meal” sense of the term, no matter what lame jokes are heard in the chow line.

3 comments to Chow

  • Louise

    “a serving of food; a meal”
    You mean like a mess of pottage? Not that most people would be prepared to sell their birthright for anything produced in a military kitchen.

  • Jim Brown

    My mother and her family used the word ‘chow’ for a type of pickled green tomatoes. They had been cooked before pickling, and were a welcome condiment in the middle of a long winter.

  • Joyce Melton

    Chow chow is almost any kind of mixed pickle relish in my experience but the best sort was made of green tomato, onion and peppers. Del Monte used to sell small jars of it and it made the best base for devilled eggs. I worked in a deli and we would prepare three dozen devilled eggs each morning, using one whole jar of chow chow, an equal amount of mustard and mayo and a splash of the juice from a jar of pickled jalapeños to mix with the egg yolks. Paprika and black pepper were added after the mix was put back into the eggs.

    Haven’t seen that chow chow on the shelves in more than twenty years. Only kind I see now is Mexican corn relish-type made with tomatillos, corn and onions.

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