The Grammarphobia Blog

Refried English

Q: As a copyeditor and English-Spanish translator, I’m amused that so many Americans think Mexicans fry their beans twice. How did the Spanish frijoles refritos come to be “refried beans” in English?

A: You’re right, of course, that “refried beans” is a poor translation of frijoles refritos. A better translation of the Mexican and Tex-Mex dish would be “well-fried beans.”

The beans (traditionally pinto beans) are typically boiled, then mashed, and finally fried to make a thick paste.

However, the mistake in translation is understandable since the prefix “re-“ has several different meanings in English and Spanish.

Some of the senses, such as “again” and “back,” are similar in both languages. For example, “reconstruct” and reconstruir mean to “build again” while “replace” and reponer can mean to “put back.”

But the prefix is often used in Spanish (though not in English) as an intensifier. So buscar can mean to “search” while rebuscar means to “search thoroughly.” And, as you know, frito means “fried” while refrito means “well-fried” or “very fried.”

When the verb “refry” first showed up in English in the mid-19th century, it literally meant to fry something twice, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest citation is from an 1860 book of recipes. After slicing and frying pork, the book says, you can “take out what you wish and re-fry suitable for eating.”

Interestingly, the OED’s first example of the adjective “refried” used in the Mexican sense comes from New England, not the Southwest.

Here’s the citation, from the Dec. 4, 1897, issue of the Lowell (Mass.) Sun: “If I had my choice I should prefer them [frijoles] ‘re-fritos’, or refried, with all the pork fat fried into them.”

However, the OED’s earliest published reference for the phrase “refried beans” is from a list of various dishes cited in the Aug 12, 1911, issue of the Brownsville (Texas) Herald.

Later in the 20th century, according to the OED, the word “refried” took on a more general sense: “Merely reused or carried over with little or no change or improvement; rehashed.”

A 1916 citation from the Classical Journal says the classics will be read long after popular works have been “rehashed, refried, re-served, and finally consigned to the literary swill-can.”

However, the rest of the OED cites for “refried” used this way are from the second half of the 20th century.

The 1968 song “Canned Heat,” for example, refers to “refried boogie,” and a 1977 book about Bob Marley and reggae refers to “re-fried oldies.”

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