How French is your onion soup?

Q: Can you shed some light on the origin of the term “French onion soup”? A colleague of mine claims that the word “French” refers not to the origin of the soup but rather to the manner in which the onions are chopped (“frenched”).

A: Well, the onions in French onion soup are often frenched—that is, cut into thin lengthwise strips. And some people add “frenched” to the name of the dish.

But as far as we can tell the name of the soup originally referred to its place of origin, not the way the onions were sliced.

That’s not surprising, since the adjective “French” usually refers to France, its people, its culture, or its language, according to standard dictionaries.

In fact, English speakers were eating “French onion soup” for dozens of years before the term “frenched” was used to describe vegetables cut into thin strips.

The earliest example for the soup that we could find—from The Cook and Housewife’s Manual (1828), by Christian Isobel Johnstone—refers to Potage à la Clermont as “a French Onion Soup.”

The recipe doesn’t include cheese, one the typical ingredients today in French onion soup. More to the point, it calls for the onions to be “cut in rings,” not frenched.

In Dinners at Home: How to Order, Cook and Serve Them (1878), the recipe for “French Onion Soup” is also cheese-less. And the pseudonymous author, referred to as “Short,” says the onions should be cut “crossways,” not frenched.

The earliest English example we could find for a “French onion soup” recipe similar to the modern one—with cheese, butter, bread, flour, broth, and so on—is from Every-Day Helps (1892), a collection of household tips published by Wells, Richardson & Co.

However, the recipe, which calls for pouring the onion broth over a slice of fried bread and sprinkling grated cheese on top, makes no mention of how—or even if—the onions should be sliced.

The use of the term “frenched” to describe thinly sliced veggies first showed up in the early 20th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary describes the usage as chiefly North American. The earliest example is from the Feb. 25, 1903, issue of the Ottumwa (Iowa) Daily Courier: “Dinner … Frenched Potatoes with Parsley.”

Here’s a more recent citation from the Vancouver (British Columbia) Sun: “Blanch cut or frenched beans for 1½ minutes, whole beans for two minutes.”

Interestingly, the word “soup,” like its cousin “sop,” originally referred to a “piece of bread soaked in liquid,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

English borrowed the word from the French soupe, but it’s ultimately derived from the Latin verb suppare (“soak”).

“One way of making such sops was to put them in the bottom of a bowl and pour broth over them,” Ayto writes, “and eventually soupe came to denote the ‘broth’ itself—the sense in which English acquired it.”

The term “onion” has a somewhat fuzzy etymology. It’s derived from unio, a Latin word for a single large pearl, but Roman farmers also used the term for a variety of onion without shoots.

The OED speculates that the use of unio for a single pearl may be traced to unus, Latin for “one,” or that it may come from the pearl’s similarity in shape to an onion.

Ayto suggests that the use of unio for an onion may be the result of “a proud onion-grower comparing his products with pearls” or “an allusion to the ‘unity’ formed by the layers of the union.”

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