SciFri Extra: The Origin Of The Word 'Ketchup'

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Science Diction is back! This time around, the team is investigating the science, language, and history of food. First up: Digging into America's favorite condiment, ketchup!

At the turn of the 20th century, 12 young men sat in the basement of the Department of Agriculture, eating meals with a side of borax, salicylic acid, or formaldehyde. They were called the Poison Squad, and they were part of a government experiment to figure out whether popular food additives were safe. (Spoiler: Many weren’t.) Food manufacturers weren’t pleased with the findings, but one prominent ketchup maker paid attention. Influenced by these experiments, he transformed ketchup into the all-American condiment that we know and love today. Except ketchup—both the sauce and the word—didn't come from the United States. The story of America’s favorite condiment begins in East Asia.

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Harvey Wiley (back row, third from left) and the members of The Poison Squad. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) Members of the Poison Squad dining in the basement of the Department of Agriculture. Harvey Wiley occasionally ate with them, to offer encouragement and support. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) The members of the Poison Squad came up with their own inspirational slogan, which hung on a sign outside the dining room. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration ) Guest

Alan Lee is a freelance linguist and native Hokkien speaker.

Footnotes And Further Reading

The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum tells the very entertaining history of Harvey Wiley, the early days of food regulation in the United States, and, of course, the Poison Squad.

The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky is a word nerd’s dream, and contains more on ketchup’s early history. Special thanks to Dan Jurafsky for providing background information on the early history of ketchup for this episode.

Can't get enough ketchup history? Check out Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment With Recipes by Andrew F. Smith.

Learn more about ketchup's early origins in Dan Jurafsky's Slate article on "The Cosmopolitan Condiment."

Credits

Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our editor and producer is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey. Our Chief Content Office is Nadja Oertelt. Fact checking by Michelle Harris, with help from Danya AbdelHameid. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer, and they wrote our version of the “Song of the Poison Squad.” We had research help from Cosmo Bjorkenheim and Attabey Rodríguez Benítez. Sound design and mastering by Chris Wood.

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