Why sex is secretly food

The author of The Etymologicon explores the edible origins of our closest relationships

Freud said that everything was secretly sexual. But etymologists know that sex is secretly food.

For example, mating with somebody was originally just sharing your food, or meat, with them (meat meant food of any kind and not just flesh). Likewise, your companion is somebody with whom you share your bread (from the Latin panus).

The Old English word for bread was hlaf, from which we get loaf; and the Old English division of labour was that women made bread and men guarded it. The woman was therefore the hlaf-dige and the man was the hlaf-ward...

Hlafward and Hlafdige

 // Hlaford and Hlafdi // 

Lavord and Lavedi // Lord and Lady

And Indian bread is in the nude, but to explain that I’m going to have to explain how half the languages in the world began, or at least the best theory on the subject.

Once upon a terribly long time ago, 4,000 years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, there were some fellows living between the Black Sea and the Caspian. Whenever one of them died the others would bury him, or her, in a pit. They were therefore called the Kurgan Pit Burial culture. They also had some distinctive pottery and all the other tedious accoutrements of Neolithic man.

Well, we call them the Kurgans. We don’t know what they called themselves. This was in the time before the invention of writing, or even of the internet, so we don’t know what language they spoke, but we can take a very educated guess, and that educated guess is called Proto-Indo-European, or PIE for short.

The Kurgans probably invented the chariot, and probably used it to invade their neighbours. However, they did these invasions in a deplorably disorganised manner. Rather than all banding together and attacking in one direction, they split up and attacked hither and thither. Some of them ended up in northern India and some of them ended up in Persia. Some went to the cold, rainy lands around the Baltic, and some of them went to Greece and became Greek. Still others got lost and ended up in Italy and it was, to put it gently, a big mess.

We can tell where they went by digging up their burial pits and their distinctive pottery and whatnot. But their pottery is not what makes them interesting. They also took with them their language – Proto-Indo-European – and spread it all over Europe and Asia.

One would have hoped that this would operate like a reverse Tower of Babel, but it did not. You see, all the different groups developed different accents and these accents became so strong that their languages became mutually incomprehensible. After a few hundred years the Kurgans in northern India wouldn’t have been able to make out what their cousins in Italy were saying. If you want to see this process in action today, visit Glasgow.

So the ancient Indians called their dads pitar, and the Greeks called their dads pater, and the Romans called them pater. The Germans, though, started pronouncing the letter P in a very funny way that made it sound more like an F. So they called their male parent fater, and we call him father, because Old English is descended from Old German.

Similarly, the PIE word seks became German sechs, English six, Latin sextus, Sanskrit sas and Greek hex; because the Greeks pronounced their Ss funny.

There are rules of pronunciation like the German P-F and the Greek S-H that mean we can trace all these fundamental words. That’s how we can work back and take an educated guess about what Proto-Indo-European was. However, it isn’t always so simple.

Just looking at changes in pronunciation works very well on the great unchanging concepts like fathers and numbers. However, many words change their meaning as they go along. Let’s look at the Proto-Indo-European word neogw, which meant unclothed.

In the German languages (of which English is one) neogw became naked. In the Latin languages neogw became nude. But a funny thing happened in Persia to do with cookery.

You see, the ancient Persians cooked their meat by burying it in hot ashes. However, they baked their bread uncovered in an oven. They still used the PIE neogw, and therefore called their bread nan.

Nan was taken into Hindi as naan, and if you go into an Indian restaurant today you can still buy a lovely, puffy sort of bread called naan, and it’s etymologically naked.

Some bread names are even stranger. Ciabatta is the Italian for slipper, matzoh means sucked out, and Pumpernickel means Devil-fart.

Now what has Pumpernickel got to do with partridge?

The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth is published by Icon Books.