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Food for thought

Q: When did the word “restaurant” come into the English language? My understanding (which I’m not sure is correct) is that it’s a very recent invention (not more than 200 years old).

A: Your instincts about the history of “restaurant” are right on the money. It’s a relatively young word, first used in English in 1827 by the novelist James Fenimore Cooper, author of such wilderness thrillers as The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, which comes from Cooper’s book The Prairie, refers to “the most renowned of the Parisian restaurans.” (Note the lack of the final “t,” which Cooper probably left off either out of ignorance or in an attempt to imitate the French pronunciation.)

It’s significant that Cooper used the word in reference to Parisian eateries, since “restaurant” is said to have originated in Paris in 1765. The French word was a noun based on the present participle of the verb restaurer (“to restore”), which came into French from the Latin verb restaurare. So when Cooper used it, the word was relatively new even in French.

The word “restaurateur,” which confuses so many people today, has had an interesting, if not confusing, history. A similar word, “restaurator,” entered English in the 1600s, but it meant “one who restores” and was first used in the medical sense.

The OED‘s first citation, from Peter Heylin’s Cosmographie (1652), refers to a “great Herbalist and Restaurator of Physick.” This word didn’t come from French, but directly from the Latin restaurare.

Surprisingly, the modern word “restaurateur” came into English before “restaurant.” The OED‘s first citation for “restaurateur” in the sense of a restaurant keeper is from a 1796 letter by Edmund Burke that mentioned the French and “all their former restaurateurs.”

The word “restaurateur,” it turns out, was also briefly used to mean the establishment itself. That usage first showed up in 1801 in a book by Catherine Wilmot about the travels of an Irish peer on the Continent, in which she referred to “Libraries, Restaurateurs, Gambling Houses, Coffee Houses.”

The erroneous spelling “restauranteur” first showed up in the 1940s and has stubbornly persisted. In fact, modern dictionaries now list it as an acceptable variant, but I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel on this one.

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