How do you like your fries: French or french?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, August 21, 2002

So, which is it: "French fries" with a capital F, or "french fries" with a lowercase f?

That was the question Cochrane coffee companion and learning services provider Janet Embacher passed on to me from one of her students the other day.

Janet's student had heard that the word "French" in "French fries" must always be written with a capital F, since it refers to a national identity (just as "Canadian" in "Canadian bacon" and "English" in "English muffin" are always capitalized).

The student disagreed. The French would never have been responsible for something as far down the food scale as french fries, so the word "french" should not be capitalized. (He also noted we don't capitalize "china" in "china cup".)

I did the first thing I almost always do at times like these: I turned to The Canadian Oxford Dictionary.

Among the listings under "French" I found the following word pairs: French bean, French braid, French bread, French chalk, French cuff, French curve, French door, French dressing, French horn, French immersion, French kiss, French knickers, French knot, French leave, French letter, French loaf, French mustard, French roll, French seam, French toast, French twist, French vermouth, and French window -- all with capital F.

Amazingly, there was only one exception to the rule: "french fry." It's always written in lowercase (except for some other grammatical or stylistic reason).

So, was the student correct then? Well . . . yes and no.

His argument from "china cup" goes nowhere. In this pair of words, "china" does not refer to the nation, but to chini, the Chinese word for porcelain.

But was there some word origin other than nationality behind "french fry?"

I consulted several outstanding chefs around town -- including my wife.

Yes, they said. The word comes from a particular way in which some vegetables are cut into long strips before cooking: frenching.

I thought I had my answer until I discovered that that particular meaning for "french" was not documented until 1941, long after the first recorded reference to french fries in 1894.

That's the year when O.Henry, in Rolling Stones, has the French detective Tictocq say: "Our countries are great friends. We have given you Lafayette and French fried potatoes."

(You're sharp. O.Henry did capitalize "French.")

To make a very long story short, potatoes were not even part of the European diet till the 16th Century, when the Spanish brought some back from South America to feed prisoners.

Soon after, a taste for taters, sliced and deep-fried, spread through Europe, and in particular, Holland, Belgium, England - and yes, France, too.

Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, enjoyed some so much while in Paris that he served them at a White House dinner in 1802. The menu referred to them as "potatoes served in the French manner."

But it wasn't till the end of the First World War that the delicacy became the now all-too-familiar staple. American soldiers, having "discovered" them while in France, upon returning home brought with them their insatiable appetite for what they called "french fries."

But so far we've left unanswered the question as to why "french fry" is now written without capitalization.

I'd like to take the easy way out, as many stylebooks do, and say that "french fry" no longer is associated with the proper noun "France," just as "venetian blind" is not associated with "Venice."

But to use that argument, we must logically also decapitalize "French curve," "French toast" and "French kiss."

All I can say for sure is that we, too, like those First World War soldiers, have developed an insatiable appetite for the fast-food potatoes. 4.5 billion pounds of them were sold in the United States last year alone.

I don't know what the statistics are for Canada, but I suspect that sales here are continuing to increase at the same rate as the GNW -- the gross national waistline.

So, I think I'll give the last word on french/French fries to Cochrane coffee companion-about-town Sandy Rankin: "No matter how you spell them, they're all too fattening."

© 2002 Warren Harbeck

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