Crawfish étouffée, stop and stuff

Crawfish étouffée is emblematic of Louisiana’s cuisine .According to chef Emeril Lagasse étouffée in Cajun and Creole cooking refers to anything cooked in its own juices, sometimes with a little water added. The French word “étouffée” means “smothered, asphyxiated”.

What can link this form of cooking to the words “stuff” and “stop”?

The answer requires us to meander through time and space to observe how a Greek word “στύππη (stuppe)”, the coarse part of flax or hemp =oakum, tow, became “stop” in modern English and “étoupe” in modern French.

The Greek word [1]was borrowed by classical Latin (“stuppa”) with the same meaning then it changed meaning in Vulgar Latin when it came to signify a “plug” adding the verb “stuppare” formed on “stuppa” to mean “plug with oakum or tow”. The Germanic tribes along the Rhine were frequent users of this type of plug and borrowed the Vulgar Latin word forming the word “stopfôn”[2]. In Old High German as in Frankish this meant “stuff into, push in, put in”.

Old English, like Old High German descended from West Germanic, had a similar word “forstoppian” which meant “to stop up, plug, close”[3]. This word became “stoppian” and “stop” in modern English. The meaning of “halt” for the word “stop” is an English development, borrowed later by many other languages, dating back to the middle of the XV th century. For those who are young enough to remember the telegraphic style “Will arrive tomorrow STOP Meet me on the pier STOP”, the word “stop” here is an abbreviation of “full stop” which has meant “end of a sentence” in Britain since the Middle Ages. The original meaning of “stop” =plug is still found today in the word “stopper” as in bottle stopper.

The Frankish “stopfôn” was then borrowed by Old French: in 1190, the Old French verb “estofer” formed on “stopfôn” means “fill up, push in, stuff in, equip, furnish, provide”. The Old French meaning then evolved to that of “that which furnishes” i.e., “estoffe” which became “étoffe” =cloth” in modern French.

Old English then borrowed the word “estofe” from Old French:”stof” before the first quarter of the XIVth century was the quilted material worn under chain mail. Afterwards, later in that century, the word became “stoffe” meaning “cloth, household goods”. At the end of the XIVth century, in Middle English, the spelling becomes “stuffe” hence the modern “stuff”!

The Vulgar Latin verb “stuppare” became “estoper” in Old French, meaning “plug with oakum or tow, bring to a halt, close someone’s mouth[4].Under the influence of its Germanic cousin “estofer”, the verb “estoper” became “estouffer” in the XIIIth century, with the meaning of “smother, asphyxiate”. The modern spelling is “étouffer”.

The Old French “estoper” was then borrowed in Middle English to become “estop” and is the root of the legal term “estoppel” still used today.

It is only at the end of the XVIIIth century that the French word “étouffer” acquired the culinary meaning of “cooking in a closed vessel”, showing up for the first time in the 7th edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (1835).

Just because today “étouffée” and “estoufade” are culinary synonyms and are similar in form does not lead to the conclusion that they share a common root. Indeed, they do not: “estoufade” was borrowed by the French from the Italian “stofata” meaning “cooked with steam”, a word coming from the “stufa=oven” from the Vulgar Latin “exstufare” which was borrowed from the Greek “tuphein” meaning “smoke, fill up with smoke”.

Thus, after some 5,000 years and meanderings across Europe, a Proto-Indo-European root steu̯ǝ-conveying the idea of tightness, of compactness is still found in its progeny , “stop”, “stuff” and “étouffée”, even if , at first blush, the kinship between the cousins is no longer apparent.

[1]According to Joseph T. Shipley The Origin of English words : A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (1984) it comes from the Indo-European root s(teue)=compact, to condense related to stei and the Sanskrit stupa. In A Proto-Indo-European Language Lexicon, and an Etymological Dictionary of Early Indo-European Languages, , a database compiled from J. Pokorny’s “Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch”, corrected by George Starostin (Moscow), A. Lubotsky, the root/lemma steu̯ǝ- is given to mean “to get dense or tight” and is the root of the Greek στύππη `oakum’ from which the Latin “stuppa” comes.

[2] Some German scholars have posited that the root of “stopfôn” is not the Greek “stuppe” but a Germanic root “stoppon” related to the Latin “stupere” =to be stunned, dazed but all agree that the Vulgar Latin “stuppare” influenced in form and meaning the Old High German “stopfôn”: Chambers A Dictionary of Etymology R.K. Barnhart éd.(1988) p.1071. Ernout et Meillet Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine (4th ed.1959, repr. 2001) consider « stuppare » to be the root of « stopfôn ».

[3] Orrin W. Robinson Old English and its Closest Relatives, a Survey of the Earliest Germanic Languages p.12 (1992) J.R. Clarke A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary p.132 (4ème éd.1960). Note that in Old Frison stoppia meant “plug”, as does stoppen in modern Dutch. In modern French, the verb stopper still means “halt, repair a tear in cloth by darning”.

[4] A.J.Greimas Dictionnaire de l’ancien français (2001) sub nom. »estofer » and  «  estoper » et J. Picoche Dictionnaire étymologique du français (1992) sub nom. »étoupe« . Alain Rey Le Robert Dictionnaire historique de la langue française(1992).


Of Loos and Language

Interested in the differences between American and British usage? If yes ,then do read Roger Cohen‘s delightful piece « Of Loos and Language ».Several years ago, Lynn Truss, the former host of the BBC Radio 4’s Cutting a Dash programme published an equally delightful book:Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation whose title derives from a well known amphibology :

 » A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

‘Why?’ asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

‘Well, I’m a panda’, he says, at the door. ‘Look it up.’

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. ‘Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves. »

Surely,Mrs Truss and Mr. Cohen are as aghast as I am at the American propensity to use « that » to refer to persons and to render obsolete the difference between « that » and « which » .As language is a symbolic way to express oneself, how can one express oneself correctly without correct use of the symbols? A mathematician misusing symbols is hardly likely to come to the right result.