Eating your (Anglo-Norman) Words

Anglo-Norman was used not only in public domains such as government, law, administration and commerce, but also in domestic and social areas, becoming a language of literature and (later) education. The teaching of Anglo-Norman was important not only to the French-speaking nobility but also to the emerging bourgeoisie in the towns. Several manuals were compiled to help English-speakers in the acquisition of French: the first textbooks of what would now be called ‘French as a foreign language’. Schoolbooks and manuals sought to enable the socially ambitious to function in Anglo-Norman in the private sphere as well as in public, both in England and France. They aimed to teach people French vocabulary, developing the communication skills that they would need while travelling either abroad on the continent or within the island, and dealing with their daily tasks when furnishing a house, shopping at a market, or ordering a meal in an inn. These manuals set out to teach French, savoir faire, and good manners all at the same time.

From the fourteenth century onwards, the balance of language use shifted. English, always the most widely spoken language among the population, began to appear in written records (a development which had indeed been under way before the Conquest, but which events then postponed). But what happened in this process was not the substitution of one language (Middle English) for another one (Anglo-Norman): the English that emerged carried over substantial elements of what had once been French. One of the reasons why we need the Anglo-Norman Dictionary is that existing scholarly dictionaries, especially the OED and the Middle English Dictionary, have often been overtaken by more recent scholarship and as a result, tend to overstate the extent of borrowings from the Continent. In fact, many words previously thought to come from continental French can now be seen to derive from Anglo-Norman, in some cases actually being attested in England well before their earliest surviving use in continental French sources.

We can see what this means in practice if we look at one particular area, the one we call (though thanks to a rather more recent piece of vocabulary importation) ‘cuisine’. Anglo-Norman words pertaining to foodstuffs and cooking were used at every social level, from production to consumption in the centuries following the Conquest. All sorts of social groups, farmers, hunters (not to mention poachers), fishermen, market gardeners, shopkeepers and market traders, stewards, pantry-keepers, cooks, footmen and washers-up must have shared a common vocabulary with the people for whose plates the food was destined.

Below is a bill of fare which has been recreated from culinary vocabulary scattered across citations in the Anglo-Norman Dictionary, and from actual surviving menus from medieval feasts or ceremonies. After it comes a linguistic commentary on each of the terms concerned. The dishes named here were indeed destined for the stomachs of the better-off, but all those who enabled their presence on the table, though they may not have got to eat them, would all the same have named them using the same terms. Even though English ultimately triumphed over French, French terminology related to food survived in England and was present many centuries before the culinary prestige of modern France brought the strange phenomenon of ‘restaurant French’ across the Channel. Thanks to the absorption of Anglo-Norman vocabulary, some of the words used to name dishes served up at medieval tables still figure on English menus today.

Pottage and soup

Pottage and soup are today quasi-synonyms: the latter means a liquid food prepared by boiling up small pieces of meat or vegetables ; the former refers to a thick stew-like dish, typically made from vegetables, pulses, meat, etc. In both cases, modern English and modern French share the same meanings. However during the medieval period, in both insular and continental French, the sense of the word potage, was sometimes extended to mean a kind of vegetable (pulses) and at other times restricted to a specific sort of soup which contained legumes. A similar extension of meaning happened with supe, which started off meaning the same as sop (a dish containing pieces of bread). These meanings passed directly from Anglo-Norman into Middle English, giving us the modern senses of pottage and soup.

Lettuce with oil and vinegar dressing

According to the OED entry for lettuce, the word comes from continental French. This is unlikely. Laitue, the origin of the English word, is already found in Anglo-Norman at the beginning of the twelfth century, a very long time before the (fourteenth century) date of the first attestation in English given in the OED. Modern English does not term salad dressing a ‘sauce’, though we may well find it on the supermarket shelves labelled ‘sauce vinaigrette’. But we shall turn to the word sauce when we get to the next course. As far as its ingredients are concerned, the OED recognises the Anglo-Norman origin of the word oil in Anglo-Norman oile, though not that of the equally Anglo-Norman vinegar for which it gives only an Old French derivation, despite the early presence of vinegre in insular texts.

Pheasant with grape and ginger sauce

The modern word pheasant is an Anglo-Norman loanword feasant, attested from the twelfth century onwards; absorbed into Middle English by the end of the thirteenth century, it became a naturalised English term for the bird, both on the wing and on the plate. A sweet sauce goes well with game, and so we serve up one based on grapes. Once more, both the OED and the MED give derivations for the word in the sense of ‘berry of the vine collectively or individually’ which now need modification in the light of the evidence from Anglo-Norman. Numerous early examples from Anglo-Norman sources of grape indicate that it came into England from insular French, where the same word could mean either an ‘individual vine berry’ or a ‘bunch (of grapes)’. The word developed differently on the two sides of the Channel. In France it came to mean simply a ‘cluster’, not necessarily of grapes, while the fruit of the vine became known as raisin, a term which in English is specific to dried grapes only. We might liven up our sauce by adding ginger, one of many exotic spices imported from the East and duly recorded in customs records kept in Anglo-Norman at the English ports of entry. OED (ginger, n. and a.) and MED (gingivere) explain the form in modern English as a readoption of Old French from France, but Anglo-Norman gingembre was known and used much earlier and so is another word that found its way into Middle English from the local, not the continental, variety of French, as indeed is the word sauce despite the origins given in OED (sauce, n.) and MED (sauce).

Pastry filled with beef, mutton, chestnuts and mustard

Although it is uncertain how the actual spelling ‘pastry’ came about, there is no doubt that the word is based on the Anglo-Norman paste, which in medieval Britain carried both senses: ‘the mixture of water and flour to make a dough’ or the dish made with such a mixture, a ‘pastry’ or pie filled for example (as here) with beef and mutton. The generic designation of the meats themselves is a continuation of the Anglo-Norman terminology, whilst the name of the animals goes back to a Germanic origin. However, the distinction made by Walter Scott in Ivanhoe, and often since repeated as a truism, does not withstand historical scrutiny: the claim is that Anglo-Saxon commoners who tended sheep and cows provided the names for the animals while Norman nobles who consumed the end products gave then the French-derived names mutton and beef. The snag is that throughout and beyond the Middle Ages, beef and mutton were used as terms for the animals concerned, as well as for their meat. The clear-cut distinction between animal and meat terms arose much more recently than Scott assumes and so does not reflect medieval social or linguistic divisions. The OED (beef, n.) and the MED (bef) provide an etymology from continental French, overlooking the insular influence: there is a direct line of transmission from Anglo-Norman boef and mutun to modern English beef and mutton.

The meat can be accompanied by chestnuts and mustard and the names of both of these ingredients passed into English via Anglo-Norman. Modern English chestnut derives from chasteine which is attested from the thirteenth century onwards in Anglo-Norman. It is highly unlikely, on the face of it, that English-speakers borrowed that name directly from continental French, as the MED (chesteine) and the OED (chestnut) assert. It is far more likely that workers who handled the fruit of the chestnut tree in markets or in kitchens (or who went and picked them) used the Anglo-Norman name with which they were familiar, before it passed into Middle English in the fourteenth century. (Incidentally, though only superficially resembling chestnuts, conkers are possibly also Anglo-Norman in the origin of their name, from either a form of conqueror, or related to conk, perhaps a development of the same word as gives modern French conche, ‘a shell’.) The mustard seeds were also commonly used in cookery in England quite early in medieval times: here the new (third edition) OED (mustard, n. and a.) provides an appropriate derivation from Anglo-Norman mustarde.

Roast venison and mushrooms

Hunting is the oldest way of obtaining any kind of meat, and venison, which includes the flesh of the deer, boar or other game animal, was one of the most frequent dishes. The earliest attestation provided by the AND for the word veneisun goes back to 1139 and shows that terminology associated with both hunting and cookery spread out across the country not long after the Normans arrived. The same applies to our accompanying dish. The word mushroom, despite its English-looking spelling and sound, is of French origin, and there is documentary evidence that it came into English through insular French musherum, no later than the thirteenth century.

Pork sausages and lentils

Pork sausages could also be found on medieval plates. The Anglo-Norman attestations of the word saucis, recorded in the thirteenth century, demonstrate quite clearly that things so named did not wait till the fifteenth century to travel from continental France to English tables (as both OED and MED suggest), but that, for two centuries before that, they had been on the menu in England. The name for ‘pig-meat’ in modern English of course derives directly from the Anglo-Norman word porc, that the French conquerors had also brought with them.

Anglo-Norman influence on English vegetable vocabulary is further shown by the word lentil. Attestations from Anglo-Norman texts of the form lentille, give evidence of its use in England from the end of the twelfth century onwards.

Salmon with fried onion

When English speakers fished for salmon in rivers up and down the country, they called their quarry by its Anglo-Norman name. The word salmon, which William the Conqueror and his followers brought with them when they landed in Sussex, spread along all the country’s rivers and finally found its way into modern English. Onions of course grew well in English soil, but the name they bore was Anglo-Norman, the first attestations of the word oignon in insular French coming some time before any on the continent.

Battered turbot with rice, almonds and cumin

Fish and chips is regarded as a quintessentially English meal, with batter being obligatory for the fish. The mixture of flour and eggs so named was already used in cooking and its recipe was explicitly given in culinary texts from the fourteenth century. This is a striking example of insular French developing its own distinctive meanings. Continental French had the verb batre, to beat, and the noun bature (‘beating’) derived from it. But was in England that the latter word came to be used for the result of beating up the ingredients in cooking, giving Anglo-Norman bature an additional sense (no.5 in the AND entry) not found on the continent. Any sort of fish can be battered but the turbot, prized for its delicate flesh, is especially suitable. Like many fish names in English (milwell, sturgeon etc.), turbot derives from an Anglo-Norman form turbut. Potatoes, and consequently also chips, were of course unknown in medieval Europe, but rice could have been served, possibly mixed with with almonds and cumin. Once again, the OED and MED present these as derived from continental French, despite the presence of Anglo-Norman ris, alemande and comin All these goods were indeed produced abroad, but they were imported into England, sold, cooked and served by people who possessed a common language, that is to say Anglo-Norman.


Though the items now served up at crêperies in English towns are a recent import from modern French culinary practice, mainly from Brittany, the pancakes themselves and their French name go back a long way and were made in medieval kitchens. Although as OED crêpe indicates, the modern use of the word came into English from France only in the nineteenth century, essentially the same word, with the spelling crespe, is found in Britain from the thirteenth century onwards. The Anglo-Norman form then passed into Middle English with a different spelling and a shift of meaning (MED crisp) before it made its much more recent re-appearance.

Pears in comfit

It was not uncommon for a medieval meal to finish with a sweet dish, like fruits in comfit. Modern English pear comes from the botanical and agricultural terminology brought over with the Conquest, deriving from the Anglo-Norman word pere. The process of comfiting (Anglo-Norman confire sense no.3) was both a preservation technique and a way of making a dessert. It is well attested in Anglo-Norman recipes, showing that it was used in food (or medical) preparations and hence did not need to be borrowed from continental French.

Rhubarb tart

Valued for its purgative properties, rhubarb was certainly used in Anglo-Norman medicine, and possibly also in cookery, though there is at present no firm evidence of it figuring on any surviving menu; but it was definitely amongst the items sold on greengrocers’ stalls in medieval England, so it seems reasonable enough to round off our meal with it. The first attestation of the word reubarbe dates from 1212 in Anglo-Norman. As for the tart into which we have baked our rhubarb, it represents one final further word whose origin is Anglo-Norman (tarte), rather than continental Old French.