Perhaps because the one deli we had in our neighborhood when I was growing up was Italian, I always assumed that the word delicatessen came to us from Italian. But then yesterday it hit me that although delicatessen begins with the Latin word for delicate (delicatus), it ends with the German noun for food (Essen). Put delikat + essen together and you get Delikatessen, the German word for fine food (or for a shop that sells especially special high quality foodstuffs, not limited to cheese and sausages).

So a Latin/German word is weird enough. There aren’t so many Latin words in German (and my guess is that most of them got into German recently via English). But according to the online etymology dictionary, the origin story is even more complicated than that. Delicatessen is an English word that came from the German for fine food, which, in either a feat of wordplay or misunderstanding, they twisted out of the French (délicatesse) for delicacy or thoughtfulness. The French, in turn, had gotten délicatesse from the Latin for delicate or dainty (delicatus). Delicatus, in yet another turn, had come from the medieval Latin, de lacere, meaning to lure or entice away. And who knows where that came from originally. (Or maybe someone does.)

So that was my great epiphany from yesterday. Delicatessen is a mutt of a word.

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