Q: I’m aware that “crispy” has been around for centuries, but it still bugs me. Since “crisp” is already an adjective, why a suffixed “crispy”?
A: Yes, the adjective “crisp” has been around since Anglo-Saxon days. So why did writers feel the need to add the suffix “-y” to it in the 14th century?
We’re only speculating here, but we can think of several possibilities. Some writers may have wanted to differentiate the adjective from a now-obsolete Middle English noun spelled “crisp.” Others may have thought “crispy” looked more like an adjective than “crisp.” (A number of similarly suffixed adjectives had been coined in the 13th century.)
We lean toward a possible phonological explanation. The “-y” suffix may have been added because the “sp” consonant cluster at the end of “crisp” can be hard to pronounce before a word beginning with a consonant or consonant cluster. That’s why “crispy chicken” is easier to pronounce than “crisp chicken.”
In fact, many Old English forms of the adjective “crisp” had a vowel at the end. For instance, it’s spelled crispe in the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example. In Anglo-Saxon times, the “e” in crispe would have been pronounced as in our word “bet.”
Interestingly, the “s” and “p” of “crisp” were often transposed in Old English and Middle English writing, perhaps reflecting pronunciation difficulties. And bare versions of the adjective (those without an additional vowel) tended to follow nouns rather than precede them.
When the adjective “crisp” showed up in Old English, it meant curly, as in curly hair. It’s derived from crispus, classical Latin for “curled.” Although standard dictionaries still include the hair sense of “crisp,” it now usually refers to stiff, closely curling, or frizzy hair.
The OED’s earliest example is from an anonymous Old English translation (circa 900) of Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, a Latin church history written in the eighth century by the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede:
“Se gunga wæs geworden hale lichoman … and hæfde crispeloccas fægre” (“The youth became sound of body … and he had fair curly locks”). The passage comes from Bede’s description of a miracle in which a young leper was cured.
The term crispe in the compound crispeloccas (crispe loccas in some manuscripts) is technically an accusative plural—that is, it modifies a plural direct object. The form of an Old English adjective varied as its role changed. So crisp, for example, could end with “-e,” “-a,” “-u,” “-ra,” “-re,” and so on.
The letters “s” and “p,” as well as another pair, are transposed in the next OED citation: “He is blæcfexede and cyrps” (“He is black haired and curly”). It’s from an Old English homily written around 1000 by the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham (published in Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church, 1844, edited by Benjamin Thorpe).
When the adjective “crispy” appeared in the late 14th century, Oxford says, it also referred to curly hair: “By grete heete the heer of the berd and of the heed ben cryspy and curlyd.” From John Trevisa’s 1398 Middle English translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), an encyclopedic Latin work compiled in the 13th century by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus.
Around this time, a now-obsolete noun “crisp” could refer to either a “thin or delicate textile fabric, used esp. by women for veils or head-coverings” or a “kind of pastry made by dropping batter into boiling fat,” according to the dictionary. (Today, a “crisp” can mean a baked fruit dessert like an apple crisp. And in Britain, “crisps” are what Americans would call potato chips.)
In its entry for the “-y” suffix, the OED notes that “in the 15th cent., if not earlier, certain monosyllabic adjectives were extended by means of this suffix, apparently with the design of giving them a more adjectival appearance, e.g. hugy [from] huge, leany [from] lean.”
The dictionary also notes the following “fresh coinages” of adjectives with the “-y” suffix in texts before 1300: “dready, fiery, frighty, hairy (cf. Old English hæriht), happy, needy, sleepy (but cf. Old English unslǽpig), tidy (c1250 = in good condition).”
In the 16th century, the OED says, the adjective “crisp” took on a new sense: “Brittle or ‘short’ while somewhat hard or firm in structure (usually as a good quality); said esp. of hard things which have little cohesion and are easily crushed by the teeth, etc.”
The first citation is from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French grammar for English speakers: “I crasshe, as a thynge dothe that is cryspe or britell bytwene ones tethe.”
In the early 17th century, “crispy” also took on this sense of being brittle: “Bressaudes, the crispie mammocks that remaine of tried hogs grese” (from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611, compiled by Randall Cotgrave).
In contemporary dictionaries, “crisp” is now the broader term and can refer to food (“crisp bacon,” “crisp lettuce”), paper or cloth (“crisp new dollar bills”), the weather (“a crisp autumn day”), and speaking or writing (“a crisp, no-nonsense presentation”). “Crispy,” on the other hand, usually refers to food that’s firm, brittle, and crunchy (“a crispy sugar topping”). Both adjectives sometimes refer to tight curls.
“Crisp” is much more popular than “crispy,” according to a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks digitized books. But both terms are standard English when used to describe food. We see nothing wrong with “crispy” and could argue that adding that “-y” to “crisp” in Middle English was in keeping with the term’s Old English usage.
The two adjectives were used for centuries without objection. As far as we can tell, William Safire was the first language commentator to criticize the usage. In a Jan. 6, 1985, On Language column in the New York Times Magazine, he calls it “an itsy-pooism.” Oh, come on!