Stupid Question ™
April 19, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: What’s the difference between ketchup and catsup?
A: Merely a difference in style and not in the substance, which in either case is the same familiar tomato puree.
The terms “ketchup,” “catsup” and “catchup” really should all be pronounced the same way, since they’re all attempts to Romanize the same Asian word.
There’s some debate over what that word is. The new trend is to suggest a Cantonese (a major Chinese dialect) word often Romanized as k’e chap, which is loosely translated as “tomato juice.”
But that doesn’t fly. When “ketchup” entered the English language in the late 1600s, tomatoes weren’t involved. It meant any kind of spicy sauce or relish, and was usually specified as (if you’ll excuse these disgusting real-life examples) “mushroom ketchup,” “walnut ketchup,” etc. It wasn’t until the 1700s that tomatoes became popular enough in the English-speaking world for “tomato ketchup” to pop up, and eventually become the sole meaning of the word.
A better bet is that “ketchup” comes from Indonesia through a Malay word for a sauce made from spicy, pickled fish and shellfish. (This word in turn probably came from a Chinese dialect.) This theory is strongly supported by the earliest dictionary definition of “catchup,” a 1690 citation that calls it an “East-India sauce.” (Indonesia was known as the East Indies.)
Whatever the exact origin, it’s clear that the word comes from East Asia. The region was a fount of English words in the 1600s (the British got the word “tea” from Chinese in the same era), and the spelling variants of “ketchup” may relate to the attempts to pronounce an unfamiliar Asian word.
I haven’t specified the Malay word because, as with all Asian words, there’s no one way to write or pronounce it in English. Asian languages have sounds that don’t exist in English and very different structures, so Romanizing an Asian word is always a rough approximation. Thus, even dictionaries disagree on whether this Malay word is kichap or kechap.
The earliest English shot at translating this word, “catchup,” obviously took the tack of reducing it to two familiar English word-sounds. “Catsup,” which dates to the same time, may well be a different Romanization of the same word, trying to come closer to a sound that doesn’t really exist in English.
The word “ketchup” is a later variation and probably comes directly from “catchup.” In the mid-1600s, “ketch” was a very common pronunciation of “catch.” (Indeed, “catchup” may have been pronounced as “ketchup” all along.)
In the 1800s, “ketchup” was most common in Britain and “catsup” was most common in the US for reasons unknown. The two words never really canceled each other out because in their formative years, there weren’t spelling dictionaries choosing a “correct” version of words. (Many Americans pronounced “catsup” the same as “ketchup” in any case.)
Today, “ketchup” is the dominant term in both countries, though “catsup” still has its strongholds, especially in the southern US.