Growing up in New York, I (and maybe most people there) associated oregano with pizza. In fact oregano was the pizza seasoning par excellence, a taste of Old Italy—or so I thought. Imagine my decades-belated surprise, then, when I learned that English took oregano not from Italian but from Spanish. Spanish got orégano from Latin orīganum, which the Romans had borrowed from Greek orīganon.
With pizza, which Spanish and English have borrowed intact, we’re in for a second surprise: that seemingly most Italian of words actually has a Germanic origin. According to the 5th edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, the Italian word whose senses were ‘pie, tart’ and ultimately ‘pizza’ is akin to Old High German bizzo and pizzo, which meant ‘bite, morsel.’ It’s easy to see the resemblance of the German forms to their native English cognate bit, which, coming as it does from the verb bite, is etymologically ‘a little piece bitten off.’
©2014 Steven Schwartzman