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That steaming mixture of meat and potatoes, carrots in a sort of gravy got its name from the pot in which it was cooked.
The food itself wasn’t called stew until about 250 years ago, but the stew pot was called a stew 700 years ago and more.
The Oxford English Dictionary says that this is a common word in languages descended from Latin.
It seems that stew is one of those words that has been formed by squishing two words together, and then squishing the single word some more.
I implied that the word stew today refers to a steaming mixture of food. It is the steam that in turn gave the name to the pot.
The original two Latin words were ex meaning “out of” and tufus meaning “vapor.” Thus the words referring to the vapor rising out of the pot got combined into extufare and then further compressed down to stufa.
And that was just in Latin, once the word got into French the final fa was boiled away and left stew in English.
Stew shares its etymology with stove. Around 500 years ago both stew and stove shared a meaning of “a heated room” before they parted company to assume their current meanings.
From a “heated room” stew took on quite a different meaning of “heat” when it was used as a euphemism for a prostitute’s room—the thinking being not that hot things went on there, but that hookers plied their trade in bath houses.
The first time that we know of the word stew being applied to a meal was from the writings of Margaret Calderwood in 1756.
She lived with her family in Edinburgh, Scotland but her brother had to flee the country when he was wrongly accused of being a traitor. Since he was living in Holland she decided to pack up her family and take a European vacation . . . and she kept a diary.
In addition to being the first to mention stew as food, she left a great record of life at the time including what people wore, how cheese was made, who used what kinds of money, and how one traveled as an eighteenth century tourist.
She also tells of being robbed a highwayman, meeting a Hungarian princess at a ball, and the specifics of how her husband lost their guidebook.
The fact that there was a guidebook tells us that it wasn’t her travels that were so groundbreaking but her ability to document them.
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.