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According to John Ayto’s A to Z of Food and Drink:
“These new-moon-shaped puff-pastry rolls seem first to have been introduced to British and American breakfast tables towards the end of the nineteenth century.”
He goes on to cast aspersions on the stories told about the invention of these yummy baked goods. Wikipedia disses the stories too.
I’ll tell that tale in a moment, but I want first to point out that Ayto accurately called croissants new-moon-shaped.
John Ayto has written several books about words and their origins and so I’m sure that he chose his words there very carefully.
Of course we call that shape of moon a crescent moon and of course the words crescent and croissant are really two flavors of the same word; crescent arriving in English from French in the 1300s and croissant along with the pastry in at the end of the 1800s, also from French.
But when I refer to a crescent moon I’m usually just intending to communicate its fingernail-clipping shape. It could just as easily be a waning moon as a waxing moon.
But new-moon-shaped refers only to waxing, or growing moons, and this is as is should be because the very word crescent has an etymology related to the growing moon.
A new moon begins with a very thin sliver of a crescent that grows and grows until it’s a full moon. It’s that growing we’re looking for.
I mentioned in the podictionary episode on recruit that an Indo-European root ker meant to grow. This same root turns up as crescere in Latin and was then applied to the growing moon. The shape thus took its name from this horned appearance of the moon.
This same shape is an Islamic symbol and the much discredited story of the invention of the edible croissant is tied to this Islamic crescent.
Supposedly the bakers in either Vienna or Budapest were up early one morning going at it with their bread dough and stoking up their ovens when they heard a digging noise.
They alerted the army who then prevented the Turks from entering the city by tunneling under the city walls. As a reward the bakers were allowed to, or asked to create celebratory goodies in the shape of the Islamic crescent.
Trouble is that these Turkish attacks happened back around the end of the 1600s and the first reference we have to the pastries doesn’t come until something like 170 years later. The first time the word was used in English was in 1899 according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The user was a small time author from Alabama named William Chambers Morrow. He used it pretty enthusiastically too since it appears three times in his book about how students lived in Paris 100 and some-odd years ago.
But this use of croissant for the delicacy didn’t mean that was the first time English speakers were experiencing them. Crescent rolls are cited as an Americanism 13 years before.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.