What's the Difference Between Ketchup and Catsup?

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Ketchup and catsup: You've heard both words, and probably even dipped a plate of French fries in a pile of each one. You didn't notice a difference in taste, so what gives?

Ketchup and catsup are simply two different spellings for the same thing: a modern, Westernized version of a condiment that European traders were introduced to while visiting the Far East in the late 17th century. What exactly that condiment was, and where they found it, is a matter of a much wider debate.

It could have been ke-chiap, from China's southern coastal Fujian region. Or it could have been kicap, a Malay word borrowed from the Cantonese dialect of Chinese from Indonesia, also spelled kecap and ketjap, both of which are sauces based on brined or pickled fish or shellfish, herbs, and spices. Whatever it was, the Europeans liked it, and as early 1690, they brought it back home with them, calling it catchup.

The early Western versions of the sauce—which, beginning in 1711, was sometimes called ketchup, another Anglicization of the Malay name popularized in the book An Account of Trade in India—were pretty faithful to the original Eastern ones, with one of the earliest recipes published in England (1727) calling for anchovies, shallots, vinegar, white wine, cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg, pepper, and lemon peel. It wasn't until almost a century later that tomatoes found their way into the sauce, in a recipe in an American cook book published in 1801. In the meantime, another alternative spelling popped up, mentioned in a 1730 Jonathan Swift poem: "And, for our home-bred British cheer, Botargo [a fish roe-based relish], catsup, and caveer [caviar]."

The tomato-based version of ketchup quickly caught on in the U.S. during the first few decades of the 19th century. At first, it was made and locally sold by farmers, but by 1837 at least one company was producing and distributing it on a national scale. The H. J. Heinz Company, a name that's synonymous with ketchup for most people today, was a relative latecomer to the game and didn't produce a tomato-based ketchup until 1876. They originally referred to their product as catsup, but switched to ketchup in the 1880s to stand out. Eventually, ketchup became the standard spelling in the industry and among consumers, though you can still find catsup strongholds sprinkled across the U.S.

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In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

In 1989, some three decades after King had earned his doctorate, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

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Who Is 'The Real McCoy'?

Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Ypsilanti Historical Society, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After taking a cool, carbonated sip of champagne from the Champagne region of France, you might say, “Ah, now that’s the real McCoy.” Sparkling wine from anywhere else is technically just sparkling wine.

The phrase “the real McCoy,” which can be used to describe any genuine version of something, has several possible origin stories. And while none of them mention champagne, a few do involve other types of alcohol.

According to HowStuffWorks, the earliest known recorded instance of the saying was an 1856 reference to whisky in the Scottish National Dictionary—"A drappie [drop] o' the real MacKay”—and by 1870, a pair of whisky distillers by the name of McKay had adopted the slogan “the real McKay” for their products. As the theory goes, the phrase made its long journey across the pond, where it eventually evolved into the Americanized “McCoy.”

Another theory suggests “the real McCoy” originated in the United States during Prohibition. In 1920, Florida-based rum runner Bill McCoy was the first enterprising individual to stock a ship with alcohol in the Caribbean, sail to New York, and idle at least three miles offshore, where he could sell his wares legally in what was then considered international waters. Since McCoy didn’t water down his alcohol with substances like prune juice, wood alcohol, and even turpentine, people believe his customers started calling his top-notch product “the real McCoy.” There’s no definitive proof that this origin story is true, but The Real McCoy rum distillery was founded on the notion.

There are also a couple other leading theories that have nothing to do with alcohol. In 1872, inventor Elijah McCoy patented a self-regulating machine that lubricated parts of a steam engine without the need for manual maintenance, allowing trains to run continuously for much longer distances. According to Snopes, the invention’s success spawned a plethora of poor-quality imitations, which led railroad personnel to refer to McCoy’s machines as “the real McCoy.”

Elijah McCoy’s invention modernized the transportation industry, but he wasn’t the only 19th-century McCoy who packed a punch. The other was welterweight champion Norman Selby, better known as Kid McCoy. In one story, McCoy decked a drunken bar patron to prove that he really was the famous boxer, prompting others to christen him “the real McCoy.” In another, his alleged penchant for throwing fights caused the press to start calling him “the real McCoy” to acknowledge when he was actually trying to win. And yet another simply suggests that the boxer’s popularity birthed so many McCoy-wannabes that Selby started to specify that he was, in fact, the real McCoy.

So which “the real McCoy” origin story is the real McCoy? The 1856 Scottish mention of “the real MacKay” came before Elijah McCoy’s railroad invention, Kid McCoy’s boxing career, and Bill McCoy’s rum-running escapades, but it’s possible that the phrase just gained popularity in different spheres at different times.

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