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Putting my mouth where my money is: the origin of “haggis”

I have never partaken of haggis, but I have more than once eaten harðfiskur, literally “hard fish,” an Icelandic delicacy one can chew for hours without making any progress. This northern connection makes me qualified for discussing the subject chosen for today’s post. Haggis, to quote The Oxford English Dictionary (The OED), is “a dish consisting of the heart, lungs, and liver of a sheep, calf, etc. (or sometimes of the tripe and chitterlings), minced with suet and oatmeal, seasoned with salt, pepper, onions, etc., and boiled like a large sausage in the maw of the animal.” What a minefield for a foreign learner! Haggis is pronounced with hard g (as in haggard), while sausage has short o (unlike sauce). And chitterlings, suet, tripe, maw…. How many years of “advanced English” does one need to be able to eat one’s way through this definition with ease and grace? Woe to the conquered!

Anyway, the word haggis exists, and its history poses a few questions. The OED has grave doubts about its origin, though the idea that we are dealing with something hashed or hacked (even better, “hagged, hewn”) comes to mind at once. John Jamieson, the author of the great dictionary of the Scottish language wrote: “Dr Johnson [a famous English lexicographer] derives haggess [sic] from hog or hack. The last is certainly the proper origin; if we may judge from the Swedish term used in the same sense, jack-polsa, q[ua] minced porridge. Haggies [sic] retains the form of the S[cottish] v[erb] hag….” French hachis “hash” has also been suggested as the etymon of haggis.

Walter W. Skeat was a man of strong convictions, and at every moment of his career thought that he had discovered the truth, though he more than once changed his opinions. In 1896, he wrote in refutation of an improbable etymology of haggis:

“The word derived from F[rench] haut gout is the Prov[incial] E[nglish] ho-go, which is not remarkably like haggis. It is quite impossible that haggis can be ‘descended from the F[rench] hachis’, though I believe these words to be closely related. I have already shown that haggis is from the M[iddle] E[nglish] hagace or hagas, also found as hakkis…. It is clearly an Anglo-French derivative from the English verb to hack….”

Medieval diet. (Jean de Wavrin, Recueil des chroniques d’Angleterre (Volume III), via the British Library.)

But in the latest edition of his etymological dictionary, he derived haggis, via Anglo-French, from hag “to cut up, to chop up,” whose source is Scandinavian. In dealing with haggis, we are left with the constantly recurring question: from hack or from hag?

All those explanations sound confusing: too many similar forms and too many languages (Middle English, Scottish, Anglo-French, and Scandinavian). Also, the differences between the proposed etymons seem to be minuscule: hag, hack, hash…. Where is the problem? First, we need some clarity about the word’s chronology. It is usually (though not everywhere) said to have emerged in the fifteenth century, that is, in Middle English. At that time, French, the language of the descendants of William the Conqueror and his hosts, competed with English, the native language of the island’s population. But the French spoken in England was significantly different from the French of the metropolis. In the past, it was referred to as Anglo-French. The modern (more accurate) term is Anglo-Norman. The vocabulary of the early extant cook(ery)-books is overwhelmingly Anglo-Norman, so that the French origins of haggis does not come as a surprise, even though the dish hardly graced the tables of the aristocracy (or so I think). According to the findings of William Rothwell, one of the greatest experts in the history of medieval French spoken in England, “it would appear likely that, by the middle of the thirteenth century, the English were eating haggis, crackling and suet.” Good for them!

Rothwell maintains that haggis goes back to the Anglo-Norman verb hacher, known to English speakers from hash “cut up small for cooking” and hatchet, a small hache “ax(e).” Hag “to cut”  is still current in dialects, and haggle is its so-called frequentative form” (that is, “to hag often or many times”), which means not only “to wrangle in bargaining” but also “to mangle with cuts.” Monosyllabic verbs like cut, dig, hack, hag, hit, put, tug, and so forth are probably sound-imitative or at least “symbolic” (they produce the impression associated with an effort or an abrupt movement). In any case, etymologists have very little to say about them

Medieval peasants at table. They can enjoy haggis without knowing Anglo-Norman. (David Teniers, via Wikimedia Commons.)

It is not clear whether Rothwell read the 1959 article by Charles H. Livingston, whose conclusion was in some respects close to his own. In Livingston’s opinion, haggis is not related to northern dialectal English and Scottish hag of Old Norse origin. The word, he suggested, goes back to Old Norman haguier “to chop,” whose etymon is Middle Dutch hacken. (This is a typical case: some West Germanic word makes its way into Old French and returns to Middle English from Anglo-Norman or from continental French.) Both researchers not unexpectedly traced the etymon of haggis to Anglo-Norman, but they disagreed about the ultimate source (haguier versus hacher), and both deviated from the conclusion of the old OED. Incidentally, Old English had the verb hæccan, an etymological doublet of Modern English hack, rather than its etymon.

This may not be a proper place for haggling about the details, but, judging by the post-OED research, the early date of haggis seems certain. Other than that, no one doubts that haggis is a culinary term of Anglo-Norman ancestry. If we follow Rothwell and Livingston, we’ll go even further, and the word will stop being one of uncertain origin.

A kind of pie. (By Airwolfhound, CC BY-SA 2.0.)

The most amazing etymology of haggis can be found in Ernest Weekley’s English etymological dictionary. Apparently, he wrote, the word arose by “some strange metaphor” from French agasse ~ agace “magpie.” He referred to the two senses of pie (“dish” and “magpie”) and to the noun chewet “daw” and “meat pie.” The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (The ODEE) (1966) dismissed haggis as being a word of unknown origin and cited only Weekley’s hypothesis as worthy of mention. (Though The OED does not overwhelm the user with bibliographical references, James A. H. Murray did not refrain from naming numerous scholars to whom he was indebted. The ODEE never does so, and I wanted to give the source of that ingenious conjecture.) Yet it was Beatrix Potter (The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan), who observed that a magpie was also a kind of pie. Regrettably, she had nothing to say about haggis.

Featured image by quimby (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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