Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Wordy Wednesday: How long have we called them "Caramelized Onions"?

Recently, the topic of caramelized onions came up in a conversation which led me to wonder when that phrase came into common use in restaurant reviews and menus, recipes, and cooking literature. You probably know that in current cooking vocabulary, especially online recipes, the term "caramelized onions" is now very commonly used for several methods of slowly cooking onions until they melt into a very small quantity and turn a color from deep gold to deep brown. But I was sure that the term was not always used for those methods -- I felt that it had appeared some time after I started cooking. In fact, I have learned, the usage originated some time in the 1980s. Here's how I found out.

Caramelized onions from a google image search.

To begin my efforts, I tried google search and google book search to find references to caramelized onions at specified dates, going earlier and earlier. I also searched my own memory. For example: Julia Child's onion soup recipe in the original Mastering the Art of French Cooking -- first published in 1961 -- describes a process of cooking onions slowly with salt and sugar. However, the book does not use the term "caramelized onions." Under "caramelized," the index has only "caramelized almonds." *

When I ran out of ideas for online searching, I recalled that in the book Word by Word, lexicographer Kory Stamper mentioned that you could write to Merriam-Webster and get answers to questions about words. So I did. Filling in a form on the Merriam-Webster website, I submitted the following query:
Question: When did the term "caramelized" first apply to cooking onions?  I can find it in New York Magazine articles by Gael Greene in the late 1980s, but online searches (google, google book search) don't seem to turn up instances prior to that -- maybe one reference. I don't think Julia Child, for example, used the term in her early books when cooking onions that way.
I'm gratified to report that I received a very interesting answer from Emily, Associate Editor, Merriam-Webster Inc. (Her full name was included, but I don't know if it would be ok to post it here.) She emailed me:
Hi. Your message was forwarded to me, and I am happy to reply. You have asked an interesting and complex question. We are never able to identify exactly when a word was first used, especially because words are often used first in spoken language before they are written. It can be even harder to pin down a new or shifting sense of an existing word. We trace the earliest known use of "caramelize" in general back to 1842, but, as you have observed, the use relating to browning onions developed much more recently. In our own extensive citational database I found instances of this use dating back to 1980. 
That said, we do have one earlier citation that may reveal a shift towards this new use. (Note the British spelling.)
                 "The sugar helps caramelise the onion, but do not allow it to catch and turn black."
                 "A Sweet Breath of Garlic"
                 by Jane Grigson
                 OBSERVER MAGAZINE
                 May 12, 1974 
 I hope that this information is helpful.
I found it rather exciting to get email directly from the Dictionary, at least from one of the writers of the dictionary! What a great service. And I was relieved to find out that my impression was correct: the term "caramelized onions" did come into use in my lifetime. This was not my imagination and not an example of the "recency illusion."

* Mastering the Art of French Cooking: onion soup, p. 43; caramelized almonds, p. 583

If today had been Wordless Wednesday, I would have just posted this image of an azalea about to bloom in my garden.
But it's Wordy Wednesday here at my blog, so I also talked about words.


Kitchen Riffs said...

Really interesting! My (very casual) observation is you use the word when you add sugar to help brown the onions. I don't remember when I first saw caramelized used with onions, but I do remember being surprised at the use of sugar. This does speed things up, though -- to thoroughly brown onions Julia Child's way takes a good 45 minutes. Worth it, though -- I think the flavor is better.

Thanks for the research.

Tina said...

I didn't know you could get a letter back from Dictionary! Truth be told, I bet you made their day as the question is complex.
Love the photos of the onions, carmelizing makes 'me great in any dish you want to add them.

Jackie McGuinness said...

Your post was interesting for many different reasons. I get impatient taking that long to caramelize onions. I promise to be more patient in future!

That is great that M-W responded to you!

Recency illusion is a new term to me.

jama said...

You are quite the word sleuth! Good job; I'm glad you got a good response from MW. Cool!

Claudia said...

I recently read (don't remember which cookbook) the suggestion of caramelizing a big batch of onions at once, if you're going to all the trouble of an hour's simmering or so, then keep them for a number of dishes. Good research Mae.

Deb in Hawaii said...

Very interesting post and so cool that you can get an answer back from Merriam Webster and a very thoughtful answer at that. Thank you for sharing! ;-)

Carole said...

Great sleuthing! Have a great week. Cheers from Carole's Chatter

Beth F said...

How cool that you got an answer from the dictionary people!