Q: I recently saw Mr. Burns’s “ketchup”/“catsup” dilemma on The Simpsons. Which is the preferred spelling?
A: Both spellings, “ketchup” and “catsup,” have been around for hundreds of years, but “ketchup” is king. It’s been vastly more popular than “catsup” since the mid-20th century.
Neither spelling can be considered more “correct,” however, since both originated as attempts to transliterate a Chinese word into the English alphabet.
The “k” spelling was first on the scene, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was first recorded in the 1680s and was originally written as “ketchup,” just as it is today. Various “c” versions began appearing in the late 1690s, and the spelling “catsup” came along in the mid-1700s.
For many years, the “k” and “c” spellings were about equally common, with first one then the other more popular. But in contemporary usage, “ketchup” has clearly outdistanced “catsup.”
As the OED explains: “Perhaps as a result of influence from major commercial brands of sauce, ketchup seems to have become the dominant term from around the middle of the 20th cent., although catsup is still well attested in North America.”
That’s confirmed by a comparison of the terms on Google’s Ngram viewer. As of 2019, “ketchup” was more than 10 times as popular as “catsup.”
All 10 standard dictionaries we usually consult, both British and American, give “ketchup” as the principal spelling and “catsup” as a variant. Usage labels in many of the dictionaries indicate that the lesser-used “catsup” is now found only in North America.
As for the pronunciation, “ketchup” is KECH-up or KACH-up, while “catsup” is KAT-sup, KACH-up, or KECH-up.
What’s interesting about the history of “ketchup” (we’ll use that spelling) is that it wasn’t always tomato-y, and many of its older incarnations wouldn’t be too appetizing on fries. Here’s some etymology.
The noun “ketchup” comes from Hokkien, a family of dialects of Min Chinese, which is spoken in southeastern China. The Chinese ancestors of “ketchup” are rendered in the OED as kê-chiap (in the Zhangzhou dialect), kôe-tsap (Quanzhou dialect), and kôe-chiap (Amoy dialect). These compounds, the dictionary says, are derived from kôe (kind of fish) and chiap (juice, sauce), and the original Chinese term meant “brine of pickled fish or shellfish.”
John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins suggests that although the source is Chinese, “ketchup” may have come into English through Malay, a language with many Hokkien loan words. (In fact, many Malaysians speak Hokkien.) The OED also says it may have come into English “perhaps partly via Malay kecap, kicap” (soy sauce).
As Oxford explains, in the 17th century this sauce was “encountered by British travellers, traders, and colonists in southeast Asia and introduced to Britain by them.” In English, the dictionary says, “ketchup” originally meant “a type of piquant sauce produced in southeast Asia, probably made from fermented soybeans or fish.”
Once the recipe arrived in England it naturally began to change, and so did the meaning of “ketchup.” In the 18th century it came to mean a variation of the original Asian sauce.
The dictionary says it was “typically made from the juice or pulp of a fruit, vegetable, or other foodstuff, combined with vinegar or wine and spices, and used as an ingredient or condiment (frequently with modifying word indicating the main ingredient).”
For instance, Oxford has mentions of “walnut ketchup” (first recorded in 1769), “oyster ketchup” (1787), “mushroom ketchup” (1788), “tomato ketchup” (1801), and even the American concoctions “plum catsup” and “cucumber catsup” (both 1861).
Today, as we all know, “ketchup” generally means “tomato ketchup.” As the OED says, from the late 19th century onward “tomato ketchup became the most popular form,” and now “ketchup” is usually “a thick red sauce made chiefly from tomatoes, vinegar, and sugar, and used as a condiment or relish.”
[Update, Jan. 23, 2021: An American reader who just returned from a year in the UK writes to say that the British don’t automatically associate ketchup with tomatoes. “Every time I asked in a store for ketchup I was asked by the clerk whether I wanted tomato ketchup or another type.”]
Here are the OED’s earliest sightings of the word as spelled with a “k” (the first one also has the earliest use we’ve found for “soy” meaning soy sauce):
“Your Soys, your Ketchups and Caveares, your Cantharides, and your Whites of Eggs, are not to be compared to our rude Indian.” From The Natural History of Coffee, Thee, Chocolate, Tobacco (1682), by John Chamberlayne. “Cantharides” refers to a dried beetle, also known as Spanish Fly, that was used in various remedies and as an aphrodisiac.
“Take some Mutton or Beef gravy, and shred into it a Shalot or two, and a little Pepper, half a spoonful of Ketchup, or if you have no Ketchup, then put in one Anchovy.” From The Young Cooks Monitor (1683), by an author identified only as “M.H.” That use of an anchovy as a substitute tells us what ketchup tasted like in the 17th century! M.H. mentions “ketchup” five times in recipes for stewing pigeons and roasting hare, chicken, and lamb.
Though most of the OED’s “k” versions of the word are spelled “ketchup,” the dictionary also has infrequent citations for other spellings, including “Katchop” (1728), “Kitchup” (1731), and “katchup” (1914).
Here are Oxford’s earliest uses of the word spelled with a “c”:
“By Artificial Sauces we imitate the natural foetid and sub-acid Slime of the Stomach, as in Catchup mango Plumbs, Mushrooms, and some Indian Liquors or Sauces of Garlic.” From The Preternatural State of Animal Humours Described by Their Sensible Qualities (1696), by John Floyer.
“Catchup, a high East-India Sauce.” A definition from A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1699), by “B. E.”
“And, for our home-bred British Chear, Botargo, Catsup, and Caveer.” From the comic poem “A Panegyrick on the Dean,” written by Jonathan Swift in 1730 and published in 1735. Here “chear” (for cheer) means food and drink, “botargo” is the dried roe of tuna or mullet, and “caveer” is caviar.
In closing, we’ll share an early 18th-century recipe we came across in writing this post. It comes from A Generous Discovery of Many Curious and Useful Medicines and Preparations (1725), by “Mrs. Hey.”
To make a KETCHUP for Sauce.
Take one Hundred Walnuts just before they begin to be fit for pickling, bruise them well, and put them into a Pot, with a Quart of the best White Wine Vinegar, and a good handful of Salt, let them stand about twenty four Hours, and then press out the Liquor, and Bottle it for use.
LET it stand 3 or 4 Months before it be used, and when you use it shake the Bottle, and one Spoonful or two will not only thicken, but add a most grateful Flavour to the Sauce; and is not at all inferior to the Foreign Ketchup of seven Shillings a Pint, made of we know not what.