There is no cut in cutlet

It’s tempting to think that a cutlet gets its name from the fact that you cut it with a knife as you eat it, but by that logic many other kinds of food could be called cutlets as well. No, the resemblance to cut is fortuitous (which doesn’t mean ‘fortunate,’ with which the word is increasingly confused, but ‘happening by chance’). English took cutlet from French côtelette, the modern s-less version of Old French costelette, the diminutive of the coste that meant ‘rib.’ It came from Latin costa, which is the source of the Spanish word for ‘rib’, costilla. The -illa ending shows that that Spanish noun is a compound, but Latin costa also evolved directly into the Spanish cuesta that means ‘a slope.’ At the same time, Spanish has turned to Galician or Catalan for the doublet costa, just as English turned to Old French for coast. Spanish also has costado ‘side,’ with the semantic connection being that the coast is metaphorically the side or ribs of the land. In fact even in Roman times costa could mean not just ‘rib’ but also by extension ‘side, wall.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cecilia Mary Gunther
    Jan 10, 2016 @ 07:38:26

    And in amongst all that the meaning of fortuitous. I have been wrong all this time. By chance – not a happy chance? c


  2. lensandpensbysally
    Jan 10, 2016 @ 10:01:25

    Indeed, thanks for the reminder about the meaning of the “f” word.


  3. Maria F.
    Jan 11, 2016 @ 13:37:50

    The Spanish adopted the Italian word “cotoletta”. It is an Italian word also used for “cotoletta a la Milanese”. However, the correct way to say it in Spanish is “chuleta” or “empanada” a la Milanesa (if it’s breaded). People also say plain “costilla”. So, “costilla” a la “Milanesa” would mean “veal cutlet” also. Here, however, “cotoletta” remains Italian but is also used. “Costilla” is used, but “chuleta” is more common.


    • Maria F.
      Jan 11, 2016 @ 14:18:40

      “Chuleta” is also mostly used for pork meat:


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 11, 2016 @ 19:18:12

      I guess it depends what you mean by “adopted.” I haven’t found cotoleta or cotoletta in any of the Spanish dictionaries I’ve checked, including the DRAE. Perhaps some people in Spain merely used the Italian term outright as a foreign name, in the same sort of way that American cookbooks include recipes for chicken cacciatore, but cacciatore hasn’t become an English word (in contrast to pizza and spaghetti, which English has adopted as legitimate words).


      • Maria F.
        Jan 11, 2016 @ 19:26:35

        It’s Italian, we adopted it, as “pizza” or other foreign words. Now, there’s a barbarism known as “coteleta” which people also use, but only “cottoleta” is correct, and language savvy people know how to spell it.


      • Maria F.
        Jan 11, 2016 @ 19:52:42

        The right word is that it is “used”, not “adopted”, which has other implications.


  4. shoreacres
    Jan 13, 2016 @ 22:04:51

    I lived for a year in El Cerrito, a part of the San Francisco Bay area. Most people know of Marin County (Sausalito), and even Alameda County (Oakland), but El Cerrito is in Contra Costa County, and in fact is snuggled between the “rib” of substantial foothills running parallel to the coast, and the waters of San Francisco Bay.

    During the Portola-Serra Expedition of 1769-1770, “Portola sent a scouting party to the top of the peninsula mountains to hunt for deer meat. A naval officer named Miguel Costanso saw the south bay and reported seeing a large estuary, with a good stand of madera en la contra costa.

    Medicine uses the term costal in a variety of ways, too: referring to rib-related muscles and nerves. For example, “the costal groove on the inner surface of the inferior border of the body of the rib accommodates the intercostal neurovascular bundle; the costal groove provides a protective function for the intercostal neurovascular bundle.”


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 13, 2016 @ 22:55:19

      Look at all those Spanish words in California: cerrito, alameda, serra, contra, and of course costa. Biology uses costa for ‘a riblike part of a leaf or insect’s wing.’ Both Spanish and English use costal as an adjective meaning ‘pertaining to a rib or ribs.’ From my time in Honduras I remember costal used as a noun to designate ‘a large sack of coarse material.’ Presumably that kind of sack ended up hanging against the bearer’s ribs.

      As for your final word, intercostal, you may recall the comedic movie Bringing Up Baby, in which the intercostal clavicle of a dinosaur skeleton plays a key part.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.
©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
%d bloggers like this: