Yesterday's Visual Thesaurus Word of the Day was mayonnaise, and the entry for it was a bit too terse for some readers: "This French word has enjoyed a handful of spellings since its first 19th-century appearance and merits an etymology of nearly 300 words in the OED, the gist of which is 'origin uncertain.'" There's nothing less satisfying in an etymological explanation than "origin uncertain," so let's explore what's behind those tantalizing words.

When the Oxford English Dictionary first published its entry for mayonnaise way back in 1906 (it was actually still called the New English Dictionary at the time), it provided an etymology representing the conventional wisdom of the day. The word was described as "prob. feminine of mahonnais of Port Mahon, capital of Minorca, taken by the duc de Richelieu in 1756." The story told about the capture of Port Mahon can be found in many places, such as the website for Hellmann's (and they should know their mayo, right?):

Mayonnaise is said to be the invention of the French chef of the Duke de Richelieu in 1756. While the Duke was defeating the British at Port Mahon, his chef was creating a victory feast that included a sauce made of cream and eggs. When the chef realized that there was no cream in the kitchen, he improvised, substituting olive oil for the cream. A new culinary masterpiece was born, and the chef named it "Mahonnaise" in honor of the Duke's victory.

This is a fun story, but in the century since the OED published its etymological conjecture, the editors and researchers in the employ of that august dictionary haven't found much to back it up. The main problem is that there is no evidence in French for either mahonnaise or mayonnaise until half a century after the capture of Port Mahon. The earliest mention of the term that has been found thus far actually appears in a German source, August von Kotzebue's Erinnerungen aus Paris of 1804, which refers to mayonnaise de poulet. After that, in 1806, is a citation for saumon à la mayonnaise. As for mahonnaise, supposedly the original spelling according to the Port Mahon story, it doesn't show up until 1808.

The 1808 source, Grimod de la Reynière's Manuel des amphitryons, reveals that the gourmands of the era were already stumped about where the word came from, or even how to spell it. "The purists in the kitchen do not agree on the names of these kinds of stews," writes de la Reynière, referring to the fish or meat dishes that were prepared with mayonnaise as a sauce. "Some say mayonnaise, others mahonnaise, and others Bayonnaise." He discounts mahonnaise, since the city of Mahon "is not known for good food" (saying nothing of the famous siege there). Instead, he surmises that Bayonnaise was actually the original version, and mayonnaise was a later corruption.

If de la Reynière was right, then mayonnaise owes its roots to the French town of Bayonne, not the Minorcan town of Mahon. But that's not the only theory floated by French epicures. The noted chef Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833) preferred yet another spelling: magnonnaise. This, he said, was from the French word manier, meaning "to handle," and referred to the method of preparing the sauce.

All of this was far too much to include in the limited space we provide for our Word of the Day offerings. Now you know why this one was labeled the "Hard to Track Word of the Day"! But rest assured that the gastro-etymologists will keep on the trail of mayonnaise until we know the full story... even if it takes another hundred years to find out.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday February 10th 2009, 1:54 AM
Comment by: Bosse B.
Thanks, Ben! Let's not underestimate the value of fun stories about words!
Tuesday February 10th 2009, 4:04 AM
Comment by: DIANA L.
DIANA L. aka: Scarlett


Quite Frankly, my dear.......I don't care how the word is spelled, as long as there is a good amount of it spread on my club sandwiches, and for that matter...mixed in almost any sandwich filling between two pieces of bread, as well as a large dollup in my tuna, chicken,turkey, shrimp,lobster salads, and, of course, a must in deviled eggs. Need I say more? If so, I'll think about it tomorrow.

P.S. I love your website almost as much as I love Mayonnaise!!!
Tuesday February 10th 2009, 11:31 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
As a Minnesota partisan, I like the theory that it was first developed at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, as a tonic for what ails the French.
Tuesday February 10th 2009, 12:40 PM
Comment by: Jeffery F.
I wonder if "gastro-etymologists", if properly punctuated, would replace the hyphen with a colon?
Tuesday February 10th 2009, 4:23 PM
Comment by: Beryl S. (Schroeder, MN)
My husband hated mayonnaise until he found out he was eating Miracle Whip!
Tuesday February 10th 2009, 6:46 PM
Comment by: Anthony G. (Malverne, NY)
Wow- I really prefer the Duke de Richelieu story as the real source. It has a ring of truth and it is kind of exciting to know the French won a battle! Anthony
Thursday February 12th 2009, 9:54 AM
Comment by: www. I.
While I've never been able to stomach the sauce, I too, find the "French chef of the Duke de Richelieu" offering most palatable.
Thursday February 12th 2009, 9:37 PM
Comment by: Ikars S.
It seems that 'mayonnaise' is a typical French usage/word, one having the specific suffix -aise attached to a root denoting the souce-place of something, e.g., 'polonaise', the dance (and the rhythm of music for it) originating from a Polish source: Polon-ie.

It would be interesting to know if the sauce was first made up in the month of May :) and how far it was from the Cro-Magnon cave in southwestern fFrance. Whether the spelling includes an h, a y or a g seems immaterial since over the years the sound and attempts to render it properly by one letter or another has surely varied.
Friday February 13th 2009, 3:57 AM
Comment by: Arnold Mousetrouser (Australia)
Don't know whether this helps, but it's "bayonnaise" when you try to say it with a stuffed nose and a cold. AM
Friday February 13th 2009, 4:01 PM
Comment by: Anthony G. (Malverne, NY)
I think we all have had our full on the mayaonnaise mystery ! Past the devil eggs please. Anthony
Saturday February 14th 2009, 2:19 AM
Comment by: Arnold Mousetrouser (Australia)
To follow Ikars S: Take also the words Bordelaise, Lyonnaise and the song, The Marseillaise, all based on locations, amongst many. So, with or without a cold in the nose, Bayonnaise sounds reasonable, traditionally from Bayonne, as Grimod de la Reyniere suggests, for gastronomic reasons. The Mahon/mahonnais/mayonnaise story-connection sounds a little too good to be true, with the time-lag between the "creation" of the sauce and its general appearance almost 50 years later. A "ben trovato", like so many food-origin stories.

And Careme is being a touch too clever with his derivation from "manier", to handle. For instance, "beurre manie" (pronounced with an acute accent on "e" of "manie") in French cooking is a knob of butter kneaded thoroughly with flour in the fingers, then dropped and stirred into dishes to thicken them. This type of "handling" (which ensures the flour mixes into the soup, or whatever, quickly without clotting up) has nothing to do with the way mayonnaise is handled when made by beating. A different sort of handling. AM
Saturday February 14th 2009, 3:18 AM
Comment by: Arnold Mousetrouser (Australia)
Following on from my last message (above): I doubt we'll ever sort this one out. So "lettuce" move on. AM
Saturday February 14th 2009, 8:46 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Another "ben trovato" military/food story is the supposed origin of croissant. It's said that the croissant was named in celebration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire's defeat of Ottoman Turkey (and its crescent flag) in 1683. Needless to say, this one is as unprovable as the Mahon/mayonnaise story, but I like the idea of celebrating every military victory with a new item of cuisine!

( Ben trovato, by the way, comes from the Italian expression se e non vero, e ben trovato: "even if it is not true, it is well invented.")
Saturday February 14th 2009, 12:03 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Thanks for the heads up on the origin of "ben trovato", Ben. I was nonplussed, now am amusedly, unfazed. I now have a kinder way of reacting to a tall tale. I used to be redneck crude and say, "That's B******t!" Then I went to law school and learned a more refined and genteel way, though it could still be quite acerbic with the right inflection: "Indeed!" But, "Ben travato", with a playful expression is kinder and gentler.
Saturday February 14th 2009, 11:56 PM
Comment by: Arnold Mousetrouser (Australia)
And Clarence W, as you say, using a gentle "that's a bit of a ben trovato, old chap" not only surprises and terrifies (and non-plusses) your opponent but (to cross-fertilise with another thread at this site about exclamation marks) the use of the expression also does away with the need for the exclamation mark, which you included with your other examples. The rapier has replaced the bludgeon. AM
Saturday March 7th 2009, 1:07 PM
Comment by: Anthony G. (Malverne, NY)
It occurs to me that the Duke de Richelieu would have been good friends with the Earl of Sandwhich! Please add your gourmet tid bits. Anthony

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