oregano and pizza

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

15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim in IA
    Jun 27, 2014 @ 13:04:26

    hmmm…things are not as they seemed

    We got our CSA garden allotment yesterday. Included was some fresh oregano. It didn’t have a smell. So, I chewed up a small leaf. Yep…it was oregano.

    I guess I will try it on our next mini-bizzos.


  2. shoreacres
    Jun 29, 2014 @ 13:28:39

    What fun to remember “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie…”

    Now that I think about it, most people I’ve known call pizza just that. Only my Italian friends talk about “pizza pie.” On the other hand, expressions like “grab a bite” or “a bite of lunch” were typical when I was growing up in Iowa.

    I suspect you might know about Greenling, one of the best CSAs in the state. It got its start in Austin, I think. Now it’s in Austin, Houston and DFW. It’s just great – I often see their trucks in my neighborhood. I don’t need them right now, since the farm I located is awash in cheap, pickable produce, but I keep the link handy.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 29, 2014 @ 14:05:33

      I do remember that song.

      My take on pizza pie is that it was the common term for the item in the 1940s and 1950s, when the word pie was needed because most Americans weren’t yet familiar with pizzas. (Compare the way avocados used to be called avocado pears.) With familiarity came the shortening to one word.

      No, I wasn’t familiar with Greenling, although I’m aware of some of the farms that I see contribute to it in Austin. A related business that got its start here is Whole Foods, whose original store I used to shop at. It’s hard to believe there are hundreds of stores in the chain now. A new branch opened in north Austin this year, and to my surprise our neighborhood branch stayed open even though it’s only three miles from the new one. Apparently enough people asked Whole Foods not to close the older store that the company left it open (after a temporary closure to renovate the place).


  3. nliakos
    Jun 29, 2014 @ 21:29:12

    In modern Greek, they call it ‘rigani’, with the stress on the first syllable. People still collect it wild in the mountains of Central Greece where my husband grew up. Each time we travel to Greece someone gives us a large packet of it. I haven’t bought oregano in many years.

    I presume ‘pizza’ and ‘pita’ (bread but also ‘pie’, as in ‘tyropita’, ‘spanakopita’) come from the same root?


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 29, 2014 @ 22:56:01

      You bring up a good question about pita, and one I hadn’t considered. I checked the American Heritage Dictionary, which I think has the best etymologies, and found this given as the origin of pita: “Modern Greek pita, pie, cake, bread, from Medieval Greek, perhaps of Germanic origin; akin to Old High German bizzo, pizzo, bite, morsel.” So what you say is plausible, even if not documented.

      Thanks also for mentioning spanakopita: I always took the last part of the word to be merely an ending, but now I see it’s really the independent word pita.


      • nliakos
        Jun 30, 2014 @ 14:35:40

        Yes, there are all different kinds of pita: tyropita = tyri (cheese) + pita; spanakopita = spanaki (spinach) + pita; prasopita = prasa (leek) + pita, and so on. The stress is always on the ‘o’ preceding ‘pita’.
        I would never have guessed that the word originated in German, but it seems very plausible, since it sounds so similar. I wonder about the flatbread known as ‘pita bread’. Greeks also use this word, and this bread (for ‘gyro’ sandwiches and for dipping into tzadiki (yogurt-cucumber mixture). It must be related.


  4. Tom Rees
    Jul 13, 2014 @ 00:52:59

    In British English it’s pronounced ˌɒrɪˈɡɑːnəʊ


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