Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures

Word Mystery: grocery / épicerie / supermercado


Every Wednesday, I explore the linguistic origins of one word in different languages I speak.

Clearly, the title was captivated me when I saw it in my Scholastic book order catalog.

Clearly, the title captivated me when I saw it in my Scholastic book order catalog.

Grocery stores are some of my favorite places. I love prowling through the aisles and looking at all the stuff. I love the weird foods you can find in little ethnic groceries. I love the vast differences in quality, price and selection you get between any two locations. When family comes to visit, a trip to my local store is almost always on the agenda as being into food stores is apparently genetic.*

But I also just love the word grocery because it’s got good mouth-feel. (Let it roll around for a while and I’m sure you’ll agree.) Another part of my fondness for the word is connected to books I read as a kid where the town grocer was a character the kid protagonists interacted with a lot. I’m pretty sure J. D. Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain series had a person like this in them and I loved those books to pieces. Literally, the covers fell off and everything.

EN → grocery — the store of a person who sells food and small household goods. ORIGIN Middle English (originally ‘a person who sold things in the gross’ from late Latin grossus [gross].

ES  supermercado — Establecimiento comercial de venta al por menor en el que se expenden todo género de artículos alimenticios, bebidas, productos de limpieza, etc., y en el que el cliente se sirve a sí mismo y paga a la salida. [Business where goods of all kinds are sold to the public in which the customers help themselves and pay at the exit.] ORIGIN English “supermarket.”

FR  épicerie — Commerce, magasin où l’on vend des produits de consommation courante. [Business or shop where commonly used items are sold.] ORIGIN From épice [spice].

Clarification #1 — In English, a supermarket is defined as “a large self-service store selling foods and household goods.” The things which are interesting to me are “large” and “self-service” because I hadn’t really ever considered what made them “super.”

Clarification #2 — This may be an American thing, just as we prefer “stores” to the UK’s “shops,” but I use “grocery store” and “supermarket” interchangeabley. Most people I know just say they’re “going to the store” meaning, the place for food-buying. This could be a Midwesternism too, but I don’t think it’s limited to just the Central Time Zone.

Clarification #3 — That the Spanish word is the newest of the lot isn’t that surprising. It’s still very common to buy your food at multiple specialized shops and people generally go to supermarkets to stock up on shelf-stable goods like cereal and drinks. You’re always better off buying your meat, fish, fruits, veg and baked products elsewhere.

Today’s shocking verdict: English wins because this is my blog and I make the damn rules around here.

* To be fair, this may have all started when a brand new 24-hour StarMarket (Stah-Mahket) opened up in my first Boston neighborhood. The place was amazing. It had a whole made-to-order food court area inside where you could get stir fry and sushi and pasta and pizza and roasted meats with all the fixings prepped for you while you shopped. And the aisles were endless and often filled with me and my friends running up and down them having shopping cart races in the middle of the night. Now it looks totally dated and rundown, but when it was new, my she was yar.

It's hard to believe this was once a new temple at which I worshipped the food gods.

It’s hard to believe this was once the temple at which I worshipped the food gods.

Author: le cul en rows

I'm an American Spaniard, living in France. I like to tell stories.

15 thoughts on “Word Mystery: grocery / épicerie / supermercado

  1. Interesting about the French version you present as I don’t hear it being used much in France (but it is a word we use in Quebec French). I find that most French people will simply use “supermarché” (even for the smallest food store you can find) or even supermarket…(Suzanne)

    • This is odd. My very first week dans l’Hexagone someone asked me where one was and I was so pleased to be able to tell him and it stuck. I do think that maybe it’s more closely related to what Americans call bodegas or corner stores, but some people definitely do use it to mean “food-buying place.” Don’t know if there’s a usage/regional rule about this though.

  2. In the south here it is grocery. “We’re going to the grocery since it is double green stamp day.” Or “I am going grocery shopping.”

    • Interesting. I wouldn’t ever have used that construction. Are the other times you’d say something similar (where you’d drop the “store”)? Any thoughts as to why this might be?

  3. Don’t the British go to “the grocer’s”? In Chicagoland we go “to the grocery store” or, as the previous responder wrote, “go grocery shopping.” [Have you written about EN/FR/ES “hardware store” yet? IMO the FR word is the best!]

    • Hardware store is on my list of future WMs (125+ and counting…). They are also one of my favorite places.

      As far as “grocer’s” I don’t know but it doesn’t sound wrong. The problem with expats is that we all forget what’s correct in our own languages after a while. Just ask me to spell travelling and you’ll see what I mean.

  4. I love you for using the line “she was yar.”

  5. Pingback: Shopping list | Sue's Trifles

  6. In France, rather than the épicierie, we tend to go to the grande-surface.
    “Supermercado” is rather dull for Spain, isn’t it? Is it just a calc of the English?
    Around here there are Ultramarinos, and also Queviures. Perhaps more characteristically Spanish.

    • I’ve only lived in cities / urban areas in France, so I’ve never come across a grande-surface. It sounds like what you’d find in suburban America; big shopping plazas with lots of parking and enormous stores. Is that right?

      • Yes, exactly.
        I’ve been in Catalonia now for 32 years; but we teach in France every summer, and I have been known to say that when virtuous American housewives die, they may go to French supermarkets.
        Far, far more interesting than any I’ve seen in America or Spain or England. We have traditionally shopped in (not the largest) supermarket in Calais before sailing to England, and a good one somewhere in Rousillon before returning home.
        Of course, ALL of Paris probably has more, and more interesting stuff; but not so handily located. Often there is even a booth outside where you can buy FRESH, non-pasteurised milk…

      • As you say, Paris does offer a lot of diversity in terms of food items to be had but it is a real slog to have to go to individual shops for every different thing. I often wish I could just go to a big American store and buy almost all my food at once but the truth is that having to buy things bit by bit means I eat better (quality- and health-wise) and walk a lot more to get the stuff. When I die, I’ll go to a huge warehouse with ALL THE THINGS.

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