The Grammarphobia Blog

A recipe for success

Q: I recently became hooked on Downton Abbey, where I heard the word “receipt” used for a cooking “recipe.” I looked the words up online and learned that a “receipt” was once a “recipe.” When and how did “receipt” become “recipe”?

A: You’re right that a “receipt” was once a “recipe,” but the relationship between these two words isn’t as simple as that.

When the word “receipt” entered English sometime before 1349, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, it simply meant the act of receiving something.

Although English adapted the word from Anglo-Norman and Old French, it’s ultimately derived from the Latin recipere (to receive).

By the 1390s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “receipt” referred to “the amount, sum, or quantity of something received.” That “something” could be money, food, or medicine.

Before the end of the 1390s, the word “receipt” (spelled “resceyte”) was being used in the sense of a medical prescription.

The OED’s earliest citation for this usage is from John Trevisa’s 1397 translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum, an encyclopedia written in Latin by Bartholomeus Anglicus:

“In alle goode resceytes and medicyns amomum is ofte y-do.” (“In all good receipts and medicines amomum [an aromatic plant] is often put.”)

It wasn’t until 1585, according to OED citations, that “receipt” was recorded in a new sense—a “written or printed acknowledgement of receiving something, esp. of the payment of money.”

Ten years later, Oxford says, “receipt” took on the meaning you ask about: “A statement of the ingredients and procedure required for making a dish or an item of food or drink.”

The dictionary has written examples of the word used in this sense from 1595 to 1993, but the last few citations seem to be referring to a usage from the past, and the OED says this meaning is now considered historical.

The two most recent published references that clearly use “receipt” to mean a contemporary recipe are from the early 20th century.

Henry James, in his 1903 novel The Ambassadors, writes: “It’s such an order, really, that before we cook you the dish we must at least have your receipt.”

And an article in the Feb. 14, 1903, issue of the Lancet refers to “a new receipt for a ‘special beef-tea,’ in which the nutritious elements are preserved, and reinforced as far as possible.”

As for the word “recipe,” which comes from the same Latin root as “receipt,” it referred to a medical prescription when it entered English in the early 1500s.

The OED’s first citation for “recipe” is from Thomas Paynell’s 1533 translation of De Morbo Gallico: A Treatise of the French Disease,  a book by Ulrich von Hutten about his struggle against syphilis:

“This phisition whan I was wrytinge these thynges, and takyng my iourney from Frankeford, wher he was wrytynge his recipe, was asked … what he thought of Guaiacum.” (Guaiacum is a plant that has been used to treat syphilis and other diseases.)

So in the 1500s, the words “recipe” and “receipt” could mean a medical prescription. Although “recipe” is sometimes still used that way, that sense of “receipt” is now considered archaic.

By the 1600s, according to OED citations, “recipe” was being used more broadly to mean a “statement of the ingredients and procedure required for making something.”

But it wasn’t until the mid-1700s that the word came to mean the instructions for preparing food. The OED’s first citation for this sense comes from a 1743 letter by Horace Walpole: “You’ll find as soon … recipes for pastry-ware.”

So when, you ask, did “recipe” replace “receipt” in the kitchen?

Well, the two words coexisted in this sense for more than a century and a half, but “recipe” became the dominant term in the early 20th century.

How, you ask, did this happen? Simply put, more people preferred “recipe” to “receipt” in the food sense. And in language, the majority rules. Whether language mavens like it or not, that’s the etymological recipe for success.

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