Q: At breakfast on Shrove Tuesday, we had a big platter of bacon strips, and wondered, “Why do you suppose they’re called rashers?” So I checked to see if you’d covered that topic and came up dry. Is this worth a column?
A: Yes, indeed. As you already know, a “rasher” is a strip of bacon, and “rashers” means several strips (who can eat just one?).
The usage is chiefly British, according to some standard dictionaries, and like you we’ve sometimes wondered where it comes from. As it happens, etymologists have wondered too, but they haven’t come up with an ironclad answer.
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the word is “of uncertain origin” but it does point readers to a likely source: the now obsolete verb “rash,” meaning to slice or cut.
That old verb, the dictionary says, may be derived from a defunct meaning of the verb “raze” (to scrape or shave off), from rādere, which is “scrape” in Latin.
If that’s the origin of “rasher,” then it perhaps originally referred “to the practice of scoring a slice of meat before grilling or frying it,” the OED adds.
However it developed, the noun “rasher” has existed in writing since the 1500s, and its original definition hasn’t changed over the centuries. Oxford defines it as “a thin slice or strip of bacon, or (less commonly) of other meat,” either cooked or intended to be cooked “by grilling, broiling, or frying.”
In early times, “rashers” were evidently cooked over coals, as in the OED’s earliest example: “If I venture vpon a full stomacke to eat a rasher on the coales” (from John Lyly’s Elizabethan comedy Sapho and Phao, 1584).
The dictionary has several similar examples involving coals, including these from the poetry of John Dryden: “snatch the homely Rasher from the Coals” (1678), and “Rashers of sindg’d bacon on the coals” (1700).
Occasionally, the word has been applied to other cuts of meat, as in these OED citations: “A rasher of Mutton or Lambe” (1623); “some rashers of pork” (1756); “Great rashers of broiled ham” (1841); and “rashers of smoked whale” (1861).
By extension, the word has also been used to mean “a slice or portion” of any other food, the OED says. Its examples include “a Cherry-Tart cut into Rashers” (1634); “a rasher of watermelon” (1890); and “a rasher of light bread” (1965).
You may be wondering whether there’s a connection between “rasher” and two familiar English words—the medical noun “rash,” for a skin condition, and the adjective “rash,” meaning impetuous or foolhardy. Well, the answer is mixed.
The noun “rash” is probably related to “rasher,” though very distantly.
The medical term came into English in the late 17th century, Oxford says, “probably” from an obsolete French word for a skin eruption (rache or rasche). That French noun, like the later verb racher (to scrape or scratch), ultimately comes from the Latin verb rādere (to scrape), which we mentioned above as a possible ancestor of “rasher.”
This is the OED’s earliest known use of “rash” in the medical sense: “Measles, Small-pox, Red-gum, Rash, Blasts, spotted, viz. Red and Purpre Fevers” (Gideon Harvey’s A Treatise of the Small-pox and Measles, 1696).
Harvey uses the word many times in his treatise, so we’ll also give this more colorful passage: “He that mistakes a Rash (a term of art used by Nurses) for the Measles or Small-pox, can be no other than an illiterate drunken bold Fool.”
The medical term led to a later figurative use, meaning an outbreak or a spate of something, “esp. something unwelcome or undesirable,” as the OED says.
The dictionary’s earliest example is of raindrops upon a woman’s skin: “Wet through and through: with her feet squelching and squashing in her shoes whenever she moved; with a rash of rain upon her classical visage” (Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times, 1854).
Among the dictionary’s later examples are “a rash of diminutive chapels” (1871); “a perfect rash of [labor] strikes” (1929); and “a rash of exclamation marks” (1980).
The adjective “rash” is another story. It comes from Germanic, not Latin, and it’s not related to either of the nouns. Here’s the OED definition: “Hasty, impetuous; acting or speaking without due consideration or regard for consequences; reckless, thoughtless, foolhardy.”
This word is also older than the nouns. It was first recorded in The Pearl, an allegorical poem written in Middle English in the late 14th century (some date it from around 1350). Here’s the passage, as cited in the OED: “Of raas þaȝ I were rasch and ronk, Ȝet rapely þerinne I watz restayed” (“Though I rushed, rash and headstrong, / Yet quickly I was restrained in my course”).
The word may be older than that, however. Oxford says the Middle English adjective was “probably” a form of an earlier one that existed in Old English but hasn’t been found in writing. The dictionary points to similar words in other Germanic languages, including rasch in older as well as modern forms of Dutch and German.
Before we go, a note about that scratchy Latin verb rādere (scrape), the probable ancestor of the nouns “rash” and “rasher.” It’s also the ultimate source of “abrade,” “erase,” “razor,” and perhaps “rascal” and “rapscallion,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.
As we all know, rascals and rapscallions are people who take more than their share of the bacon.