Tasty Language

Not only is tongue a synonym for language and speech (the Latin is lingua) but the human tongue is also a fascinating organ important in the articulation of language, in the process of eating and responsible for our sense of taste. The human organ is said to have approximately 10,000 taste buds. The equivalent of the word ‘taste bud’ in other (Indo-European) languages is fascinating in itself. The Czech and Polish equivalents (respectively, chuťový pohárek and kubki smakowe) are wonderful phrases which literally mean ‘taste cups’ or ‘cups of taste’. Why buds and cups?

The answer can be found in the Latin for ‘taste bud’ – caliculus gustatorius and this seems to give us some insights into the word/phrase in other languages. Caliculus can be defined in English as a ‘small cup’, a ‘goblet’, a ‘polyp’ or a ‘small cup-shaped hollow’. This does not entirely explain the English use of ‘bud’, but it does help us understand why ‘cup’ is used in Czech and Polish.

Another interesting point is the word smak in Polish (cмак in Ukrainian) which was borrowed from German. It derives from the Old High German smac giving us Geschmack in German, Grundsmak in Swedish, Smaak in Dutch, and Smak in Norwegian. The word smack was actually used also in English (smæc in Old English) and the remnants of this expression (meaning taste) can be seen in the phrase, “This smacks of…”

Polish and Ukrainian use the borrowed smak (cмак) whereas other Slavonic languages use chuť (Czech and Slovakian), bкус (= vkus) (Russian and Belarusian) and okus (Croatian, Slovenian). To compare, the Lithuanian is the rather similar skonis. Language is simply a repository of culture, ideas and knowledge. Every language is in itself a vessel, a ‘cup’ that houses the history of that language and its people and shows us what the language and its people have experienced. Sometimes, looking into this ‘tasty cup’ can give us some surprising results.


14 thoughts on “Tasty Language

  1. 1. smack
    “make a sharp noise with the lips,” 1557, probably of imitative origin. Meaning “a loud kiss” is recorded from 1604. With adverbial force, attested from 1782; extended form smack-dab is attested from 1892, Amer.Eng. colloquial.

    2. smack
    “single-masted sailboat,” 1611, probably from Du. or Low Ger. smak “sailboat,” from smakken “to fling, dash”, perhaps so-called from the sound made by its sails. Fr. semaque, Sp. zumaca, It. semacca probably are Gmc. borrowings.

    3. smacker
    “money,” c.1918, Amer.Eng. slang, perhaps from notion of something “smacked” into the palm of the hand. Extended form smackeroo is attested from 1940.

    4. smack
    “heroin,” 1942, Amer.Eng. slang, probably an alteration of schmeck “a drug,” esp. heroin (1932), from Yiddish schmeck “a sniff.”

    5. smack
    “taste, flavor,” now mainly in verbal figurative use smacks of … (first attested 1595), from O.E. smæc, from P.Gmc. *smak- (cf. O.Fris. smek, Du. smaak, O.H.G. smac, Ger. Geschmack); probably related to Lith. smaguriai “dainties,” smagus “pleasing.” Meaning “a trace (of something)” is attested from 1539.

    6. smack
    “to slap with the hand,” 1835, from noun in this sense (c.1746), perhaps influenced by Low Ger. smacken “to strike, throw,” which is likely of imitative origin (cf. Swed. smak “slap,” M.L.G. smacken, Fris. smakke, Du. smakken “to fling down,” Lith. smagiu “to strike, knock down, whip”).

  2. It’s amazing for me how the language actually functions in a proper culture, even a small word or a phrase which seems to mean the same in two different cultures/languages, might not be as similar as we can think it is. It might be so confusing for translators, because sometimes it sounds obvious and suddenly it appears that it is not as obvious as we think. I’m surprised and fascinated especially by this phrase “taste bud” which sounds obvious, however the meaning and the origin is not so evident.

  3. Interesting point by Asiaw. Reminds me of “faux amis”, the words we think we recognise in another language, but which in fact mean something quite different. One example is the German word “Tachometer” which, unlike the English tachometer which measures engine revolutions per minute, is actually – the speedometer, surprise, surprise. Not to mention gift, which might be a nice think to receive in English, but not in German : it means poison. There are many examples of this, and they are constant reminders to proceed with caution, all the more so as the territory seems to familiar …

    BTW, Trans, do you happen to have a Greek brother called Con ? 🙂 (Sorry !)

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