Dear Matthew: Here's a question that started when I worked in restaurants ten years ago and still comes up once in a while, but I have yet to get an answer to. So I turn to you. Other than spelling, is there a difference between ketchep and catsup? — Ward, Clairemont
“Ketchep” is a new one on me. But tomato ketchup, the Qadaffi/Kadaffi/Khadafi of condiments, may as well be spelled that way to add to “catsup" and “catchup," which are the generally accepted alternatives. The word entered the English language in spoken form first, leaving us to thrash around for an acceptable approximation to the Malay sound.
“Hi, sailor, new in town? How about a little kechap?" We can let our minds wander back to the 16th Century and imagine maidens enticing British mariners with such invitations. They were offering a sort of pickled fish sauce popular in Southeast Asia. (The name was borrowed from the Amoy Chinese name for the pungent stuff, koet-tsiap.) Back in England, the borrowed word “ketchup” (the original and most common spelling) was applied to a pickled sauce made from a base of fermented mushrooms or walnuts. Tomatoes didn’t enter the picture for quite a while, since people were generally afraid of them until the mid-1800s. We decided they were poisonous, like their cousins in the nightshade family of plants. And we chose to ignore the fact that the Aztecs, from whom we got the vegetable, had built an exceptional civilization on a diet loaded with tomatl( the Aztec Nahuatl name from which we formed “tomato” — or, presumably, “tomatoe” if you’re Dan Quayle).
Undoubtedly more than you ever cared to know about ketchup/catsup/catchup. No matter how you spell it, it’s the same oozy red stuff.