Tracing the origin of the word condiment is, perplexingly, easier than determining the exact meaning of the word as used today. Even professional chefs can’t seem to pin down the definition.
Anything added to food to enhance its flavor after it has been prepared might be considered a condiment, based on the loose and plastic way the term is used. Ketchup is a condiment, but sometimes chopped onions or even salt have also been called condiments. Webster’s defines a condiment as “something used to enhance the flavor of food; especially: a pungent seasoning.” 1 There is surely a difference between a seasoning and a condiment.
Most of us are content with a condiment being a sauce, relish or another additive used to enhance a dish after it has been prepared. But, let’s trace the origin of the term, and how it was first used.
Origin of Condiment
The word condiment dervies from the Latin word condire, which meant to put in, preserve, pickle, or flavor. From this word the word condimentum. Salt was the major “condimentum” of ancient times as salt was an indispensable preservative. Later, the word came to refer to spices or seasonings.
So, if you were reading an ancient Roman recipe, spices would, in general, be referred to as condimentum, but no doubt this word was as fluid as it is today, simply referring to “flavoring.” At some point during the middle ages, however, condiments began to refer to additions to foods, especially sauces. These additions were not “the foods themselves” but were meant to correct the foods, improve its texture, stimulate the palate, or to provide a benefit to the body in some way. Certain standard sauces were known to keep well and be suitable for travel aboard ships. These condiment sauces, therefore, lent themselves to commercial products, leading to our view of condiments today, as mustard, ketchup, hot sauce, relish, etc. 2 3
- “Condiment.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/condiment.
- Cresswell, Julia. Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins. Oxford University Press, 2010.
- Tebben, Maryann. Sauces: a Global History. Reaktion Books, 2014.