French Fries Aren’t French: Names That Went Wrong

Belgian Fries and German Checkers

You’d think Chinese checkers come from China, Panama hats are Panamanian, and French fries are truly French. Right? But there’s actually little truth to these names. Curious to know the reality behind these completely incorrect labels? Let’s finally give credit to the places these items aren’t named for!

Arabic Numerals

Despite the name, Arabic numerals (like 1, 2, 3) that the West has been using since the 1100s originated in India, not in the Middle East.

In 200 BC, Indian scientists and mathematicians devised the earliest ancestor of Arabic numerals, a numeric system called “Brahmi.” The Brahmi numerals transformed many times over the centuries before Middle Eastern mathematicians came across them in the 1100s. Muslim scholars translated Hindu and Sanskrit texts into Arabic and introduced India’s body of learning to Europe through Islamic Spain.


Chinese Checkers

This popular game, with its colorfully tipped star-shaped board, has nothing to do with China. The game of Chinese checkers was developed in Germany in 1892, based on an earlier game called Halma invented by a thoracic surgeon from Boston. We told you, these mis-placed origin stories are complicated!Halma (Greek for “jump”), was a 2-4 person game created about ten years before Chinese checkers, and was played on a square board (that’s pretty much the only difference). A company in Germany created the star-shaped board and named the game Stern-Halma. Stern-Halma jumped back stateside in 1928, first as “Hop Ching Checkers” and then “Chinese Checkers.”

Panama Hats

Panama hats, breathable, lightweight straw toppers, are native to Ecuador. In part, geography’s to blame for this mis-placed label. In the 1800s, Ecuador wasn’t a bustling tourist destination. Panama (then part of Colombia) is perfectly situated as a bridge between the Americas. At the time, the fastest way to travel from coast to coast in North America was through Panama. So, being savvy business people, the Ecuadorians sold their fancy hats in Panama.


English Horns

The English horn actually isn’t a brass horn at all, but a large oboe. It also isn’t English. The instrument originated in Silesia, what’s now mostly Poland and a small part of Germany. It took its modern form in the 1720s, resembling a normal oboe but with a bulbous pear-shaped bell at the base.

One theory explaining the “English” mystery is that the horn was said to resemble the instruments held by angels in medieval religious artwork. The High German word for “angelic” was engellisch, so the term might have been a mistranslation from the original “angelic horn.”

Jerusalem Artichokes

Jerusalem artichokes don’t hail from Israel, but are rather born and bred in North America. Their botanical name, Helianthus tuberosus, refers to the tiny sunflower-like flora that grow alongside the artichoke (helianthus literally means “sunflower”). In an apt portmanteau, the green tubers also go by the name sunchokes.

One theory for the “Jerusalem” misnomer is that it’s an English corruption of what Italian settlers to America called the artichoke–girasole artichoke, or “sunflower artichoke.” Another theory suggests when Puritans came, they named the tubers they planted after “New Jerusalem”, the new city of God they hoped to build in the New World.

French Fries

Belgians rue the day US soldiers in World War I called fried potatoes “French fries.” In attempts to make up for our brethren’s mistake, we’re giving the Belgians due credit for creating the most exquisite fried food known to man.

The French fry is said to have originated in Belgium thanks to fish. Belgians enjoyed eating small fried fish, but when the rivers froze over in winter, they had to devise a substitute. Cut potatoes into thin fish-like strips and – Voila! – Belgian “fish” fries. American soldiers stationed in Belgium called the dish “French fries,” because French was the official language of the country. But what about the country?? Sacre bleu!

The Battle of Bunker Hill

A quick US history lesson: The Battle of Bunker Hill should actually be called “The Battle of Breed’s Hill.” This Revolutionary War battle wasn’t fought on Bunker Hill at all, but on a peak a third of a mile away.

At the start of the war, Colonel William Prescott was instructed to fortify Bunker Hill near Boston. Instead, he ordered 1,000 men to build a fort on Breed’s Hill, which was smaller and closer to where the British were located. Maybe Prescott was purposefully defying orders with his own strategic plan…or he might’ve needed a geography lesson! Who knows, had it actually been on Bunker Hill, the colonists might not have lost the battle.

Russian Dressing

Sadly, the history of Russian dressing doesn’t involve Anna Karenina escaping her loveless marriage to splash mayo and ketchup together with her lover. Rather less romantically, Russian dressing comes from Nashua, New Hampshire. A blend of ketchup, mayonnaise, pimientos, horseradish, and secret spices, the salad sauce was invented in the early 1920s by a New Hampshire grocer named James E. Colburn. Some say the “Russian” part of the name refers to Colburn’s fondness for adding caviar to the spread.

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