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Wagyu or waygu?

Q: We know it’s “wagyu,” but the menu at Spoons Bistro in Victor, Idaho, spells it “waygu.” When we mentioned this to our server, the chef came out and explained that “waygu” is the accepted and proper term for US-raised wagyu. We liked the restaurant and we’ll go again, but we were skeptical of this explanation. What do you think of that spelling?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary has only one spelling, “wagyu,” for this borrowing from Japanese. It refers to either Kobe-style beef or the cattle the beef comes from.

In Japanese, the OED says, wa- means Japan or Japanese, and gyu means cow, bull, cattle, or beef. So in Japan wagyu can refer to a Japanese cow or bull, Japanese cattle, or Japanese beef.

The word is generally pronounced WAG-yoo and can be either singular or plural. It’s sometimes capitalized.

Oxford defines “wagyu” this way: “A breed of cattle of Japanese origin, from which is obtained tender marbled beef typically containing a high percentage of unsaturated fat; an animal of this type. Also: the beef obtained from such cattle.”

However, the Japan Meat Information Center (on an English-language Web page entitled “What is wagyu?”) says the beef comes from four different breeds of cattle: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn, and Japanese Polled.

We checked half a dozen standard American and British dictionaries, but only one, Collins, had an entry for the word—spelled “wagyu.”

Collins uses the terms “Kobe” and “wagyu” interchangeably to describe the beef, though “Kobe beef” technically refers to beef from cattle raised and slaughtered in the Kobe area of Japan.

The term “wagyu” is still relatively new in English, which may account for its absence from most standard dictionaries, and the lack of a consensus on exactly what it means.

We’ve seen it used to mean Kobe beef, Kobe-style beef, beef from any of the four Japanese wagyu breeds, beef from wagyu hybrids, beef from other cattle raised like wagyu, and so on.

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from the July 5, 1963, issue of the Sheboygan Press in Wisconsin: The country’s farm experts hope to increase the production of beef tremendously by crossing Angus with the native black Wagyu cattle.”

The most recent citation is from Murder at Marathon, a 2003 mystery by  W. H. Denney: “Duncan, never shy or left hungry, ordered the expensive Wagyu sirloin, imported from Japan.”

Getting back to your question, we looked at the online menu of Spoons Bistro and found the dish that caught your eye: “Bistro Filet Medallions: grilled waygu beef, ratatouille, baby potato with a spicy bloody mary sauce.”

We’ve seen “waygu” on the menus of other restaurants, but in many cases that spelling seems to be the result of typos.

The Yamashiro restaurant in Hollywood, for example, has a “From the Kitchen” feature entitled “Waygu Steak on Salt Plate,” but the restaurant uses the spelling “wagyu” in describing the steak.

We haven’t seen any authoritative source that supports the “waygu” spelling, though some people believe “waygu” refers to American-produced beef from wagyu cows or wagyu hybrids, while “wagyu” refers to beef produced in Japan from wagyu cows.

Well, the term “waygu” may not have scholarly cred, but our googling suggests that it’s nearly as popular as the original “wagyu.” Here’s the Google the scorecard: “wagyu,” 1.8 million hits; “waygu,” 1.2 million hits.

So what’s going on here? To be honest, we don’t know, but here’s one possibility. Perhaps English speakers find “waygu” easier to pronounce than “wagyu.”

It will be interesting to see if both spellings make it into standard dictionaries as the word catches the attention of more lexicographers. Stay tuned.

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