Roman omelettes

Tigger is a little under the weather today and is staying at home. This means that we will not be visiting our Italian friends round the corner from where she works for our usual Friday omelette.

Sitting here thinking about that, I remembered that we were discussing omelettes the other day, omelette fans that we are, and fell to wondering where the word comes from. It’s a strange word, even admitting that it is obviously French, and doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with eggs.

The simplest explanation is that it comes from the word overmele, which was the name given by Marcus Gavius Apicius, a 1st-century Roman, to a dish made of eggs, honey and pepper, shown in one of his cookery books. On the face of it, this seems a quite plausible derivation.

Things are rarely that simple, of course, and if you prefer a more complicated etymology, try this one for size. According to this, we start with the Latin word lamina, meaning a thin plate (which I suppose omelettes resemble). The word had a diminutive form, lamella, meaning something like “little plate”, and this turns up in Medieval French, quite reasonably, as lemelle. This in turn becomes alemelle, for reasons best known to Medieval French speakers.

If you are a fruit lover, you will probably know that the round fruit we use to make marmalade with was originally a norange (c.f. modern Spanish naranja), which in popular speech became an orange. Look now at the French phrase la lemelle and you might be able to see how people confused it with l’alemelle, the latter meaning a knife or sword blade. When you think about how people often muddle up unusual words, you might not be surprised to find alemelle mutating into omelette, which it did by the 16th century.

I rather like Apicius and his overmele, to be honest, but it all hinges on the evidence that the etymologists can marshall in support of their respective theories. A nice project for a wet weekend, perhaps.

Either way, omelettes, made with free-range eggs, of course, are very enjoyable and we look forward to our weekly visit to the Italian cafe on Omelette Day. Not this week, however. Never mind, there will be other weeks and Tigger is already showing signs of recovery, though she is very tired and is resting. Let’s hope the weather will be fine this weekend so that we can complete her convalescence by making a pleasant little trip somewhere interesting.

We might even eat the odd omelette.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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6 Responses to Roman omelettes

  1. Ted Marcus says:

    My two American dictionaries trace it back to “lamella” and “lamina” (both of which are proper English words if you’re a biologist), but there’s no mention of “overmele.”

    I hope Tigger is better by now (and that you don’t get it yourself). My workplace is filled with the raucous sounds of coughing and the rasping of laryngitis. Whatever virus is currently circulating seems to be a very sadistic one.

  2. SilverTiger says:

    Yes, the dictionaries generally take trace “omelette” back to “lamina”. They are probably right but the word “overmele” certainly looks a possible contender, even if a false one.

    It is sobering to think that the end of the human race may occur (paraphrasing T.S. Eliot) not with a bang but a virus.

  3. athinkingman says:

    Thanks for this fascinating post. It reminded me that etymology is often like a relationship. Sometimes relatively strong and rewarding, at other times exasperating, and at some other times just confusing and leaving you with so many unanswered questions.

  4. SilverTiger says:

    Yes, etymology is fascinating. Tigger and I often stop in the middle of a conversation to wonder where a particular word comes from and to make a mental note to look it up.

    We try to make a guess as to the derivation and sometimes get surprisingly close to the truth but other times go laughably astray.

  5. athinkingman says:

    I am interested in place-names, and like you, often make etymological guesses, only to get it horribly wrong. One of my favourites is a place in Norfolk called Fiddlers Dykes. Of course, the Fiddlers part has nothing to do with violins – apart from anything else, they came much much later than the place, of course. It is actually a mutation from Wolf Face – vis de lu.

  6. SilverTiger says:

    We went out wandering yesterday and found ourselves passing through Tooting Bec. It had previously occurred to me what an odd name that is so this time I decided to look it up when we got home.

    We have a little book on the origins of the names of all London’s tube stations but it is unfortunately in store (yes, still) at the moment, so I had to have recourse to the Web.

    I haven’t been very successful so far – the Web can be very frustrating at times. I do know that the Bec part derives from Bec Abbey in France as a result of the order that ran it being given land in Tooting after the Norman Conquest. That of course begs the question as to where the name Tooting came from.

    Or for that matter, Bec in France…

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