The Etymology of Kitchen
History is complicated. Have you tried to trace someone’s lineage only to find missing information in the archival records? Or, have you heard a family story passed down orally that only certain relatives can verify? This detective work is even harder when the person comes from a culture whose history was intentionally erased. And the same is true for their languages. Take for example the word kitchen. There is one definition of the word kitchen that is unique to African American culture:
kitchen (n) – the section of hair just above the nape of your neck
Someone once explained to me that the term stemmed from the practice of styling hair in the kitchen of the house. But African Americans have a diverse past with origins in various African, European, and Native communities. When these different cultures came together, so did their languages. And this language contact led to the borrowing and transformation of each other’s words and grammars.
So, I wasn’t surprised when two of my favorite podcasts suggested kitchen might be a loanword from another language. On A Way With Words, Martha and Grant suggested it originated from the Scottish word kinch for a twist of rope or similar to a braid. On Lexicon Valley (start at 10:38), John McWhorter suggested kitchen was the Anglicization of the Kicongo word for nape which is kichin.
Both etymologies seem plausible. Scottish immigrants had an influence on the development of American English, especially in the south where many African Americans originate. Enslaved people came to America speaking languages from many regions in Africa. So which is the correct etymology? Is there some truth to both theories? Or, does kitchen have a completely different history altogether?
Want to learn more:
- Kitchen isn’t the only word with a contested history. Read about the origins of mmhmm.
- Linguists are preparing the Oxford Dictionary of African American English, including etymologies of its entries.
- Talking Black in America is a documentary covering the history of African American language.