Posted on 20 Jan 2014 17:12
Most information concerning how the dried strips of meat we call jerky got its name takes to the form of folk etymology. The most common erroneous feature of such word origin stories is that they tend to look for lexical cues in the word, which often leads to quite convincing etymologies that turn out to be mistaken. Since the word "jerk" already has a quite clear meaning in English, this folk etymology claims that beef jerky got its name because strips of dried beef are "jerked" off larger strips for consumption, or because the process of preparing the dried beef must involve the beef being jerked (which makes no sense as nothing is jerked in the process). As well, in order to eat the tough, chewy meat you have to forcefully jerk a bite off. All this makes apparent sense, but none of it is actually correct.
Although we think of jerky in terms of beef, it is simply a way of removing the moisture from meat for preservation. This can be done with venison, buffalo, fish (especially salmon), and all sorts of other game, including fowl. Today, we even have turkey jerky. The name jerky comes from the Quechua language, which the Incas spoke. There word for the process of drying meat was cchargini. The Spanish explorers adopted this word to create the Spanish word charque. Our word jerky is simply an English rendering of the Spanish word, which probably evolved over time. It has nothing to do with the word jerk, although this may have influenced the evolution of its pronunciation.
Not only the Incas, but many Native Americans used a drying process to preserve meats or fish for the winter or for long trips. The meat or fish was salted and hung in the air to dry until almost all of the moisture was removed. It would then keep for a very long period of time and provide a convenient source of protein when fresh meat was unavailable. The jerky could also be rehydrated and used in cooking.