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If you remember that slapstick comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, you may remember Ollie’s standard line
“another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”
Stan Laurel was the thin one and Oliver Hardy was the fat one.
This might bespeak a larger appetite on the part of Oliver Hardy and if so there might be an etymological explanation for Ollie’s quote.
Around the year 1300 the word mess made its first appearance in writing in English. This date points to a possible source of the word from French since it’s within a few hundred years of the Norman Conquest and it would have taken a few centuries for a French word to have been first picked up and adopted into English, and then eventually to find its way onto paper.
Sure enough the Oxford English Dictionary traces mess back to Anglo-Norman and Old French before that.
But what a hungry Oliver Hardy might have found interesting about a mess of 700 years ago is that it didn’t mean “a spot of trouble” as he might have meant in reprimanding Stanley, at first a mess was a serving of food, a meal.
This connection between the word mess and food is preserved for us in the military where soldiers, sailors and pilots eat in the mess.
As with most French words mess actually goes back to Latin and the OED even takes it back further to Indo-European.
Back those five thousand years or more the Indo-European root mittere meant “to send” and the idea here is that the food was sent to the table. So from Indo-European to Latin the meaning was “to send” but while in Latin a meaning of “food” evolved that was carried into languages including French and Italian.
English adopted the “food” meaning but English was the only language to mutate the meaning again into our current meaning of “disorderly,” “untidy,” “cluttered” or “dirty.”
Here’s how that worked:
After that first appearance in 1300 the word mess changed its meanings in English a little bit. In one case it went from meaning “a meal” to meaning “a single portion.”
In another case it went from meaning “a meal” to meaning a specific kind of meal, something soft, liquid or goopy; porridge or soup would have been called mess by some people as early as 1330.
This is the meaning that matters to us because it is this mixed-up-stew kind of meal that gave rise to a meaning of mess by 1738 as feed for an animal and by 1828 as an unappetizing mixture of foods. Somewhere about this time the undesirable state of “things mixed together” lent the word mess to applications outside of the world of food.
The OED‘s first citation for mess meaning “a predicament” or “troubling state of affairs” is from 1812. So by the time Stan and Ollie were getting into messes in the 1930s the principal meaning of “food” had been somewhat obsolete for a century or so.
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.