What is the Origin of 'Vittles' for Food?

Posted on 25 Apr 2016 15:27

Vittles is an old-time word for food which we tend to associate with the rural South, cowboys, pioneers, mountain men, and the like. It actually comes from Middle English, by way of French.

It is sometimes suggested that victuals is the proper way of saying vittles and that vittles is simply a vulgar misspelling of a more refined word. The history of the word in English and in French tells a different story.

Vittles is actually a shortened and simplified spelling of the Middle English word vitailles, which arrived via the Old French word of the same spelling. It has been used in English since at least the early 1300's.

The word vitailles was in use when it was discovered that original origin of the word was the Latin word victualia. This caused some to imagine a 'proper' course of action would be to respell vitailles as victailles, which became the curious word victuals, supposed to be the proper spelling of vittles.

Vittles actually remained the most common use of the term, but the confused etymology caused many to think that vittles, all along, had been a misspelling and mispronunciation of victuals, which is pronounced without the 'C' as VIH-tuhl.

Cowboys having vittles from the chuckwagon, c. 1880-1910

Some cowboys out on the range having some vittles,
chuckwagon in the background, c. 1880-1910

This practice of attempting to refine English by aligning words with their supposed Latin etymons is actually fairly common, and is yet another way that English spelling can be so confusing, as unnecessary letters are added to "Latinize" English words.

Just for curiosity's sake, here is a list of other words that were Latinized. For the first words in the list, the pronunciation of the words never changed, only the spelling.

  • dette to 'debt' to match Latin debitum and dubitare
  • sisours to 'scissours' to scissors to match Latin scissor
  • langage to 'language' to match Latin langua
  • receite to 'receipt' to match Latin receptum (the word recipe came from receipt)
  • samon to 'salmon' to match Latin salmo
  • quire to 'choir' to match Latin chorus
  • aventure to 'adventure' to match Latin adventura (pronunciation changed to pronounce the 'd')
  • avis to 'advice' to match Latin advisum ('d' pronounced)
  • perfeit to 'perfect' to match Latin perfectus
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