One of the strangest etymologies we’ve featured for a while popped up on HH this week: ganache, that rich chocolatey mixture used to top cakes, takes its name from a French word for an empty-headed fool—which in turn takes its name from an even older French word for the bottom jaw of a horse. So how the dickens did that happen?
Well as a word for a jawbone, ganache comes from the Greek for “jaw”, gnathos. That fell into use in Latin, then Italian, and finally French in the seventeenth century, becoming specifically attached to horses’ jaws in French sometime in the mid 1600s.
The connection between jawbones and dunderheads is a puzzling one, but likely falls under the same heading as words like “slack-jawed,” in the sense of someone staring vacantly with their mouth gaping open; tellingly French also has an expression, cheval chargé de ganaches, referring to a horse with a jowly, drooping lower lip.
The word remained unchanged in French until the 1800s, when the French playwright Victorien Sardou wrote a play, Les Ganaches, ridiculing all those who hold old fashioned and non-progressive views. First performed in 1862, Les Ganaches proved an immediate success—in honour of which, a noted Parisien patisserie house named Maison Siraudin began selling chocolate bonbons called ganaches. (The choice of name was likely little more than a tribute to Sardou, but might also have been a satirical swipe at politicians in nineteenth century France who opposed changes to a tax on sugar imports, a viewpoint that would have undoubtedly affected the Siraudin’s business.)
English had already picked up the word ganache as an insult in the mid 1800s, but the popularity of these chocolatey treats was not lost on the British. By the 1920s, English speakers had adopted the confectioners’ use of the word ganache as well, and over time all the earlier negative connotations disappeared, leaving us with the word as it is today.