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.