Printable Version
Pronunciation: ke-chêp Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)

Meaning: Originally, ketchup was 1. a sauce made from the juice of mushrooms, walnuts, tomatoes, vinegar, and other ingredients, and used as a condiment with meat or fish. In most countries, however, it has become 2. a thick, sweet tomato paste.

Notes: This borrowed word has worried English-speakers to the point that we have tried to make sense of it by converting it into a compound comprising recognizable English words, cat+sup (the process is called 'folk etymology'). Both spellings are accepted these days, but maybe we need both words, ketchup for the original fish sauce and catsup for the tomato paste so widely enjoyed in North America. Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen since in 1981 the Reagan administration declared ketchup (spelled this way) a vegetable for the purposes of school lunch programs. As a result, all ketchup manufacturers in the US changed the spelling of catsup to ketchup to avoid losing sales.

In Play: Because of its bright red color, American ketchup is easy to spot and easy to mistake for other substances: "If that is ketchup on your collar, the woman you were necking with must have been eating a hamburger!" Long before President Reagan, people of little means had figured out that ketchup was a vegetable: "For lunch I had a bowl of tomato soup made of a half bottle of ketchup and hot water."

Word History: This fascinating word came to us from Dutch ketjap, borrowed from Malay kechap "fish sauce". The original Malaysian sauce contained no tomatoes but fish brine and local herbs and spices. The Malaysians may have picked the word up from a word in the the Amoy dialect of Chinese, k-tsiap "brine of pickled fish", but this is unclear. The important point is that in the 18th and 19th centuries ketchup was a generic term for sauces whose only common ingredient was vinegar. (Katy Brezger thought that this word would add a little spice to our Good Word series.)

Dr. Goodword,

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