Something else to chew over

Seems the blog drew all sorts of expertise over the weekend, including this comment from a Brazilian linguist by the name of Angela (who also happens to be a bagel enthusiast):

I’ve just read your post on the (possible) origins of the word ‘bagel’. Just so it happens I baked bagels today (no malt syrup or malt powder though. These are hard to find in Brazil) and, believe it or not, I am a linguist! So I thought I’d write to tell you something about why or how things get their names.

When a new item is introduced into a culture, it obviously needs to be named in this culture’s language. Sometimes the item is translated into something more familiar; in Portugal, for example, the spring roll is called “crêpe chinês”. Even though crêpes are not deep-fried, and definitely not rolled up like spring rolls, it’s the closest concept that the Portuguese have of the original thing.

In some other cultures, the tendency is to add the original word to the vocabulary, just pronouncing it differently. That’s what usually happens in English: spaghetti means spaghetti, banana means banana and caviar means caviar.

Then there’s the bagel. Now, I’m no food historian, but as a linguist I do have a hunch. Sometimes, a word can be changed due to what we call “folk etymology”. That’s when someone makes a wrong analogy about the origin of a word, but then it becomes popular and well-accepted as the right etymology. (here’s a link to a better explanation + examples on Wikipedia:

So I’m guessing that the bagel had another name when it “came to America”, but then, some time later, someone made the connection between its shape and the yiddish word. Specially in New York, the yiddish community must have been really big at that time, so that could easily explain the facts. Then some folks thought they’d vindicate the position of “the creators of bagel”, coming up with different explanations and origins — thus all the fighting.

The point is: just because the yiddish word is “more similar” to the thing itself and to its current name, doesn’t mean that the bagel was a jewish creation. So we’re back where we started. As a linguist I can’t really tell you the origins of bagel, I can only tell what’s the probable origin of the word in English. How about that? 😀

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