Kabeljau v. Bacalhau

tender flakes of bacalao in a casserole, made by Sara

On Friday night, Sara celebrated her birthday by making a big, delicious bacalhau dinner at her place. Bacalhau is cod fish that has been dried and salted, and is a staple of Portuguese cooking. It sounds terrible but Sara who is proudly Portuguese herself, made it in part to show everyone how good it actually is -which everyone agreed it was after a couple bites in.

Sara is always quick to extoll the cultural impact her country has made all over the world throughout history (the Japanese word “arigato” being derived from the portuguese “obrigado” as one example). So an interesting debate started up over dinner about the German and Portuguese words for cod -kabeljau and bacalhau respectively. The words are so similar, there has to be some etymological relationship. But which came first? Who is influencing whom?

Sara of course claimed it’s a Portuguese word that the Germans adopted. Bacalhau is such a huge part of Portuguese cooking that it has to have a longer history there. But some of the German guests demurred. Cod is fished in the cold waters of the North Sea -not off the coast of Portugal. In fact, the reason that bacalhau cod is dried and salted is to preserve it for its long journey to southern Europe. Therefor, the Portuguese name must be derived from a northern European language.

Curious about what the origins of the word might reflect about early European relationships, I did some research and found that while there is no definitive answer, there is a surprising theory.

According to Montgomery Schuyler Jr. in an article in the Journal of Germanic Philology (1902), all sorts of languages in western Europe had early, similar sounding words meaning salted, dried cod:

old Dutch (1350): kabelaw and kaplawe

Middle Dutch: kabelow, kabbelow, kaplawe and kabbelaw

Swedish: kabeljo, kabbiljo and cabiljo

Danish & Norwegian: kabeljau or kabliau

East Frisian (German): kabbeljouw

English: cabilliau and kabbelow

French: cabillaud (old French: cabillau, cabellau, cabliau, kabeliau and kableau)

Portuguese: bacalháo and bacalhau

Spanish: bacalao

Italian: bachalao

But while the names are similar, there is a weird inversion between the Teutonic languages that have the “kab” or “cab” at the beginning and the Romance languages that start with “bac(k).” France is the exception, which Schuyler claims has to do with the old marketplace. The Dutch had strong trading ties with France, a good way to disseminate their name for what that was probably one of their largest  exports. This suggests that the word came from the Dutch, but Schuyler believes that the word was actually introduced by the Basques, who “are known to have been the first Europeans to engage in the cod-fishery at the Banks of Newfoundland and on the coasts of America, and it is probable that they introduced the word directly to their immediate neighbors.” (Unfortunately, there is no explanation of the inversion).

So we’ve traced the word in Europe to the Basques, but wait -they got the fish from Newfoundland and America. Schuyler writes:

“It is certainly possible that as the Basque fishermen brought back a new fish from the coasts of North America, they brought back also the name which was current among the aborigines of Newfoundland, Labrador, New England, or wherever they may have landed during their adventurous voyages.”

In other words, the origin of the word kabeljau/bacalhau is not German, Dutch, Portuguese or even Basque. It’s probably Native North American! So I’m so happy to say we can put this EU debate to rest, thanks to the new world and its delicious inventions.

southern & northern Europeans -friends and enemies for thousands of years

the bacalhau is gone, the etymological debate continues

nothing to do with bacalhau, just a really cool horse in Sara’s courtyard


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