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The heavyweights of the English dictionary world (The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam Webster for instance) can trace the use of the word Chardonnay back only to 1911 in English when it appeared in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
These English dictionaries haven’t made too much progress for this word in the etymology department saying only that the origin is French. Chardonnay has been grown for centuries in France and is now one of the most popular white wines in the world.
The 1911 date is a reflection on an earlier lack of sophistication among English speaking wine drinkers rather than on the antiquity of the grape type.
The Dictionnaire des Noms de Cépages de France finds French citations dating back to 1685 for the grape name. Both this and the great French Robert dictionary identify Chardonnay as being applied to the grape based on a place name.
Between the cities of Dijon and Lyon in France, there is a very small village called Chardonnay that is reported to take its name from an earlier Latin name for the place cardonnacum.
The Latin name likely arose based on a personal name Cardus, thought to be Gaulish. However, carduus is also the Latin word for “thistle,” so some people believe the ultimate meaning of Chardonnay to be “a place of thistles.”
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.