Bait and Switch: 10 Misleading Words for Foods

There's a reason 'mountain oysters' aren't on the seafood menu, friend
Last Updated: 1 Mar 2024
What's up (with this dish), meddyg?

Does Not Refer To: the meat of a rabbit named Rhys or Carwyn

Refers To: melted and often seasoned cheese poured over toast or crackers

Why Though? The name may have originated among the English as a dig against their neighbors, the Welsh. Rabbit was a much more expensive dish than cheese and toast, but if you were Welsh, that’s probably what you made do with. Since there is no rabbit at all in this dish, folk etymology created the variant Welsh rarebit, which upgrades it from what was considered a poor man’s dish to a purported delicacy.

Young Haight drank his Apollinaris lemonade through a straw, Geary sipped his ale, and Vandover fed himself Welsh rabbit and Spanish olives with the silent enjoyment of a glutton.
Frank Norris, Vandover and the Brute (1914)


Does Not Refer To: brioche

Refers To: the thymus or pancreas of a young animal (such as a calf) used for food

Why Though? If there was ever a reason, it is lost to time.

The restaurant offers Spanish gastronomy with international influences like langoustines with Iberian pork and almonds or sautéed sweetbreads with hazelnuts and black truffle.
— Todd Plummer, Forbes, 7 Feb. 2024

top 10 surprising food words rocky mountain oysters

Does Not Refer To: oysters from the famed oyster beds of, let’s say, Bozeman

Refers To: the testes of a bull calf, sheep, boar, or other animal used as food

Why Though? “The testes of a bull calf” is, we imagine, a tough sell on most menus.

Upon arrival, you step through massive wooden doors into a courtyard with adobe beehive fireplaces before entering the restaurant area, which is divided into cozy seating areas in which about 900 people enjoy Thanksgiving dinner each year. You might want to start with one of the mountain-inspired appetizers: roasted buffalo marrow bones, Rocky Mountain oysters, or buffalo tongue.
— Betsy Reynolds Bateson, Sunset (November 1995)


Does Not Refer To: cheese of any kind whatsoever

Refers To: a jellied loaf or sausage made from edible parts of the head, feet, and sometimes the tongue and heart especially of a pig

Why Though? The word is thought to be from the Dutch hoofdkaas, which translates as “headcheese.” We have no explanation for the Dutch word.

All around us hang loops of sausages, every kind you can imagine, every color from the purple-black of blutwurst to the pale whitish links that my mother likes best. Blocks of butter and headcheese, a can of raw milk, wrapped parcels and cured bacons are stuffed onto the shelves around us.
Louise Erdrich, The New Yorker, 26 Feb. 1989

Vegan-friendly marrowfat

Does Not Refer To: fat from bone marrow

Refers To: any of several wrinkled-seeded garden peas

Why Though? Possibly due to the taste or mouthfeel of the pea.

“Oh, no, “ answered the little mauve mouse. “It was that wicked, murderous cat! Just as Satan lurks and lies in wait for bad children, so does the cruel cat lie in wait for naughty little mice. And you can depend upon it that, when that awful cat heard Squeaknibble speak so disrespectfully as Santa Claus, her wicked eyes glowed with joy, her sharp teeth watered, and her bristling fur emitted electric sparks as big as marrowfat peas.”
Eugene Field, The Mouse and the Moonbeam (1889)

Fingers on fingers

Does Not Refer To: the fingers of a lady, thank heavens

Refers To: small finger-shaped sponge cakes

Why Though? We’d wager the shape rather than the flavor, unless the lady does not wash her hands after eating tiramisu.

The next time you’re having a dinner party, make a tiramisu, using coffee kombucha in place of coffee to soak your ladyfingers.
— René Redzepi and David Zilber, The Noma Guide to Fermentation (2018)


Does Not Refer To: creamed eggs, or even one of those egg-shaped chocolate Easter candies filled with fondant

Refers To: a drink consisting of milk, a flavoring syrup, and soda water

Why Though? We’re glad you asked. Grab an egg cream and get comfortable reading this deliciously deep dive on the subject.

There’s a milk menu, your choice of plain or chocolate or coffee (a Rhode Island specialty, made with Autocrat-brand coffee syrup, sweet and bitter); the latter two can be topped with a squirt of seltzer to make a very decent egg cream.
— Helen Rosner, The New Yorker, 14 Jan. 2024

No pork chops here (we think)

Does Not Refer To: honey glazed mutton

Refers To: food rich in sugar, such as candy or candied fruit

Why Though? Meat is an old, old, old, word in English, going back to (ahem) the Old English mete (and beyond). While English users today use meat primarily to refer to the edible flesh of an animal, its original meaning was “‘something eaten by man or beast for nourishment.” Many sweetmeats may be of dubious nutritional value, but they do fit that particular bill albeit broadly, so there you go.

In preparing sugar for sweetmeats, let it be entirely dissolved, before you put it on the fire. If you dissolve it in water, allow about half a pint of water a pound of sugar. If you boil the sugar before you add the fruit it, it will be improved in clearness, by passing it through a flannel bag.
— Eliza Leslie, Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (1828)

top 10 surprising food words cold duck

Does Not Refer To: delicious (if you’re a meat eater) holiday leftovers eaten straight from the refrigerator after midnight

Refers To: a beverage that consists of a blend of sparkling burgundy and champagne

Why Though? Cold duck is a translation of the German Kalte Ente, referring to a drink of mixed wines and lemon juice. Some sources attest that Kalte Ente was an alteration of Kalte Ende, or “cold end," but the duck variant was just, well, duckier.

Everybody in the kitchen is drunk. … Sherry pours us some cold duck from a bottle that was in the walk-in cooler.
— Gail Regier, Harper’s, May 1989

Photo: Getty

Does Not Refer To: [redacted]

Refers To: a pudding made with suet and currants or raisins

Why Though? If the sound of spotted dick is unappealing, your only other option is spotted dog. Sorry, but those are the two names we have for this luxurious, quintessentially British steamed pudding, so take your pick: dick or dog. The dick in spotted dick is thought to be the common nickname for “Richard,” which itself may have arisen (cough) as rhyming slang for “Rick.” The upshot of all of this of course is that “Dick spotted spotted Dick” is a perfectly cogent and grammatical thing to say. If you’re an American looking up recipes for spotted dick online (always, and we mean always, include “recipe” in your search terms, by the way), you’ll note that it looks more like a light-colored fruitcake than the sweet, gloppy dessert we call pudding (and it also looks rather like a Dalmatian, hence its alternate moniker). That’s because they call all kinds of things “pudding” over there—even sausage! But we’re not here to judge, just to giggle and nudge each other in the ribs with our elbows.

Spotted dick is a popular British pudding served with oozing globs of creamy custard. Unfortunately, even the world’s best spotted dick isn’t something I’d want to put in my mouth.
— Alice Lahoda, Buzzfeed, 27 Nov. 2022