Au naturale isn’t natural

I’ve increasingly run across occurrences of the phrase au naturale, but while that form may have started appearing in English, it’s unknown in French, the language that people who use au naturale probably think they’re quoting. The correct French expression is au naturel, and it corresponds word-by-word to Spanish al natural, which the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española defines as meaning “Sin artificio ni mezcla o elaboración.” We might loosely translate that translation into English by saying “in a natural rather than artificial or crafted state.” Similarly, when I turn to my largest French dictionary, I find that au naturel means ‘according to nature, in a natural state, not artificial.’

But look up au naturel in English dictionaries like the American Heritage or vocabulary.com, and you’ll find that the first definition is ‘nude, completely unclothed,’ while ‘in a natural state’ gets listed only second. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the ‘nude’ sense arose from the use in English of au naturel to mean ‘uncooked.’ I’m not sure about that, because in the 1822 book The French Cook we find this recipe for Artichokes au Naturel:

According to the size of your dish, boil a certain quantity of artichokes in salt and water only, after having washed them in several waters; remove all the insects that swarm about the leaves, and trim them of all the bad leaves; ascertain whether they are done enough, either with the point of a knife, or by tearing off one of the leaves. If the knife penetrates, or the leaf comes off with facility, then you may be certain that the artichoke is done. Shift it instantly into cold water, that you may take out all the inside; first take off the top all of a lump, then empty the choke, set the top on again, and send up as hot as possible, with a sauce blanche, or French melted butter in a sauce-boat.

Based on that description, it seems the culinary sense of au naturel was ‘cooked by itself, without additional seasoning,’ though a separately prepared sauce could be added at the end. From conveying the notion of ‘bare food,’ au naturel would then have become a euphemism for ‘having a bare body.’ According to a couple of dictionaries, the first known use of au naturel in English was in 1817. Akin to that expression in its ‘bare body’ meaning, English has naturism and naturist as synonyms for nudism and nudist, respectively. In Spanish, however, the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española defines naturismo only as ‘Doctrina que preconiza el empleo de los agentes naturales para la conservación de la salud y el tratamiento de las enfermedades.’ English also gives that sense to naturism.

The word natural comes from Latin naturalis, the adjective corresponding to natura, etymologically ‘the way [the world] is born.’ It’s interesting, then, in light of the ‘naked’ sense of au naturel and naturist, that English also has the colloquial expression in your birthday suit, meaning ‘wearing no clothes.’

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For two Spanish words that are surprisingly—some would say unnaturally—related to natural, see the early posts in this blog about nada and nadie.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

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10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Susan Okaty
    Feb 07, 2012 @ 14:20:54

    Muy interesante, Steve. A mi me gusta su blog.

    Reply

  2. Steve Schwartzman
    Feb 07, 2012 @ 16:06:49

    Bienvenida, Susana.

    Reply

  3. shoreacres
    Feb 07, 2012 @ 19:22:06

    Thanks to your post and my curiosity about Whole Foods’ choice not to include “natural” in their corporate name, I discovered a local natural foods co-op hidden away in a cul-de-sac (!) of my town. I’ll be off to explore their market on Friday.

    I notice they also sell garments made of natural fibers, for those who prefer not to roam about (or take photos) in their birthday suits.

    Reply

    • Steve Schwartzman
      Feb 07, 2012 @ 19:41:50

      One of the problems with “natural” and “all natural” on food labels is that the terms have no legal meaning, so a label can claim that the food inside is “all natural” even if it contains chemicals. I wonder if that’s why Whole Foods chose not to make “natural” part of its corporate name. Happy exploring of its local counterpart on, as you exclaimed, a cul-de-sac. Whether the store offers good prices on birthday suits made of au naturel fibers remains to be seen.

      Reply

  4. Plamen
    May 25, 2013 @ 09:58:51

    “Au naturale” is not a French or Spanish term; it’s an English term.

    Reply

  5. Topo (@Topomostro)
    May 30, 2014 @ 17:05:39

    I have a horrid feeling that ‘au naturale’ is a bastardisation of ‘au naturel’ (correct French) and ‘al naturale’ (correct Italian) for ‘in the natural state’. It’s been jumbled together probably in error and somehow stuck, and now I fear it is replacing the correct terms.

    Reply

    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 30, 2014 @ 19:11:55

      A mélange of French and Italian phrases is a plausible hypothesis. I’m afraid the mixture is gaining ground, though it’s still a non-standard form. I searched in Google just now and found about 1 million hits for au naturale and 2.2 million for au naturel.

      Reply

  6. Helene Barratt
    Oct 13, 2016 @ 13:39:48

    I found ‘nature oilcake’ as a translation of ‘tourteau nature’ on a French menu. Apart from being curious as to how tourteau got translated as oilcake, I am tested as to how exactly to translate ‘nature’ in this instance.

    Reply

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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