13 . 05 . 15
The Etymology of Bread
I spend quite a lot of my time thinking about the first person to discover bread. I appreciate that someone didn’t just stumble across a loaf of rye sitting alone in the forest – it was most probably a happy accident, a caveman who left some grain paste out in the sun too long perhaps. Whatever happened 14,000 years ago, bread hasn’t failed to leave a lasting impression on us, so lasting in fact that it has edged its way into our vocabulary to become synonymous with the essence of life itself. We might all be familiar with the expression ‘bread is the staff of life’ meaning that bread is vital to survival, but in Egyptian the word for bread (aish) also means life. Roman poet Juvenal quite rightly stated that ‘bread and circuses’ are all leaders need to stop their subjects rioting. Even Gandhi recognised that people are swayed more by what’s in their stomachs than religion (‘There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them but in the form of bread’). Bread in these cases is not just bread – it stands for all food and is stronger than even religion and government.
In English, bread idioms usually refer to money, money being the thing that pushes so many English-speaking consumerist countries forward, and therefore becoming interchangeable with what makes the world go round. The ‘bread winner’ makes the most money. ‘Bread and butter’ are our means to survival. Dough itself is a slang term for money. If we know which side our bread is buttered on, we know from where we can get our sustenance.
And then there are bread expressions that describe something fantastic. The best thing since sliced bread – industrially sliced bread being the greatest invention. If we separate the wheat from the chaff we are throwing out the unnecessary, chaff being something that cannot be used for making bread.
But there are words too, peppering our language that bread has got into the very heart of. I would like to turn your attention to the name of our project, The Bread Companion. ‘Companion’ really struck me as beautiful once I realised its etymology. Companion is a friend, an ally, someone who means you no harm and keeps you from being lonely. Companion in English is from the old French compaignon, which is from the Latin com-panis, literally meaning with bread. A friend is someone you share bread with.
I much prefer bread in this context as it refers to something a bit deeper than money, wealth and being the best – it becomes about connecting oneself to another human being. Bread, or food in general, is about sharing and giving. We share food to support and enjoy company with each other. This, to me, is the heart of my project and I aim to use bread as a gateway for people to form real connections to their food, neighbours and their community.