Corny But True
America’s favorite vegetable has lent its name to more things than you might imagine. Food names, of course: cornbread, corn beef, corncake, corn starch, corn flakes, corn flour, corn grits, corn meal, corn muffin, corn oil, cornpone, corn chip. And the curiously named corn dog, which has nothing to do with America’s favorite pet, but everything to do with a cholesterol-altering trip to the County Fair.
Corn dodger will be more readily recognized by our Southern friends, not as someone who avoids corn consumption, but as a cake of corn bread that is fried, baked, or boiled as a dumpling. Umm, sounds delicious. Also dangerous to the arteries.
And there are some people who would lump another corn derivative – corn whiskey or corn liquor – right up there in the venerable USDA Food Pyramid.
Corn has given its name to the plant family too. Corn plant, corn husk, corn stalk, corn cob, corn silk, and corn field are all related to the plant itself. But it has less desirable relatives that have also appropriated its name – corn cockle, a hairy weed found in grainfields; corn borer, an insect that likes corn as much as we do; and corn smut, which has nothing to do with dirty pictures, but everything to do with a particularly nasty-looking black fungus that grows on corn stalks. Corn salad is a plant with tender, narrow leaves that’s eaten – you guessed it – in salads.
When young ladies put cornrows in their hair, they’re plaiting it in narrow strips of hair tightly against their scalp, resembling, of course, rows of corn. It’s always looked like a lot of work, but the wearers don’t have to fuss over a daily hairdo as long as the braids are in place.
In one of those strange twists of word derivation, the much-favored veggie is also used to describe persons, places or things that are less than “cool.” Somebody or something that’s “corny” or “cornball” is hopelessly old fashioned, trite or foolishly sentimental.
Other words have become part of the English vocabulary because of their relation to corn and the culture that grew up around it.
“Shelled” comes from European explorers who observed Indians using clam shell to remove kernels from the cob. ’Way, ’way back, Iroquois Indians stored their corn atop their houses in “garrets.” Colonists borrowed the word, storing their own corn in garrets, which they later called “attics,” which in turn became the name for rooms where people for generations stored away furniture and stuff that had outlived its usefulness.
Think the concept of grilling in the back yard is new? Well, think again. “Barbacoa” is a prehistoric West Indian Arawak word used to describe a variety of raised platforms upon which meat or corn was dried or roasted by fire from beneath. Hence, our word “barbecue.”
And there’s nothing corny about that.
Tags: Food , Vegetables , English Words , Etymology , Corn
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.