It’s not just beans that meanz Heinz


When Peggy made her saucy pitch to Heinz on Sunday’s Mad Men — following her former boss’s more cryptic (and in my opinion more classy) presentation to the condiment giant — she drew an interesting distinction between two names of the centuries-old sauce that made its way, originally tomato-less, from the Far East to western shores some time back in the 1600s. Trying to emphasize the superiority of the Heinz brand by dissing its competitors, she asked rhetorically, “What’s the difference between ketchup and catsup?” Her answer, designed to be like catnip to the catsup men-in-suits, was brilliant in its drawing of enemy lines between two words that were (and still are) effectively and officially synonymous. “Well, catsup has more tomatoes, comes in a bigger bottle. It’s cheaper, but tastes just like ketchup. Now, we know that’s not true. But that’s what your competitors are saying, over and over. They’re selling their watered down, flavorless sauce by pretending that they’re you. It makes you angry, doesn’t it?” It was a clever ploy on Peggy’s part to elevate the Heinz brand by distinguishing it not just descriptively but also verbally, aligning one of two generic names of the red condiment (and arguably the more linguistically appealing one — given its initial “k” and lack of feline associations) solely with the brand in question, and assigning the other word — catsup — as a catch-all verbal repository for everyone else’s inferior product. “Heinz: the only ketchup.” But was Peggy correct in making that distinction?

Fowler, in his Modern English Usage, states that ketchup “is the established spelling; formerly also catchup and catsup, of which the second at least is due to popular etymology. A Chinese or Malay word is said to be the source.” The OED explains in more detail that ketchup is “a spicy sauce made from tomatoes, mushrooms, vinegar, etc., used as a condiment”, and also suggests a possible derivation from the Cantonese word k’e-chap meaning “tomato juice”. In other words, both ketchup and catsup mean the same sauce, whatever the ingredients, quality or brand. And it seems they always have done, despite Heinz’s success (as Peggy foretold) at monopolizing the ketchup brand.

European traders were first introduced to the condiment while visiting the Far East in the late 17th century. According to Charles Lockyer in his book An Account of the Trade in India, published in 1711, “Soy comes in Tubbs from Jappan, and the best Ketchup from Tonquin; yet good of both sorts are made and sold very cheap in China.” The Europeans liked the sauce but didn’t like the “k”, Anglicizing its name to catchup as they brought it home to the West. (It is spelt as such in the 1690 Dictionary of the Canting Crew.) Although the “k” version crept back into usage in the early 18th century, the name catchup endured alongside it — especially in North America, where its  modified alternative, catsup, was quickly adopted and kept up with ketchup — until Peggy and Heinz so cunningly dissed it in the boardroom. It was actually Jonathan Swift who first put catsup in print, in 1730: “And, for our home-bred British cheer, Botargo, catsup, and caveer.” (The history of the word caviar is another story entirely.)

See Glossophilia’s earlier post on brand names that have morphed into generic nouns and verbs.