Mind your language

What does Peter Quennell have to do with fish?

11 September 2021

9:00 AM

11 September 2021

9:00 AM

When Peter Quennell was sent down from Oxford for consorting with a woman called Cara (by Evelyn Waugh’s account), he joined Sacheverell Sitwell on honeymoon in Amalfi. I don’t know what Mrs Sitwell thought of it.

I learnt this odd fact because I was seeing what connection his name had with quenelles, the fashionable dish like rissoles or gefilte fish traditionally made with pike in Nantua in France. Their quenelles are big — no fiddling around with spoons — and covered in crayfish sauce. They may be better eaten on location than tried at home.


Anyway, there is no connection. The surname Quennell comes from the Old English cwen, meaning ‘woman’, and hild, ‘battle’.

As for quenelles, there was a row in France in 2013 when a comedian popularised a gesture that he said meant ‘glisser une petite quenelle dans le fond’. Presented as an ‘up yours’ to the establishment, it also possessed anti-Zionist connotations that some called anti-Semitic. But the French have a thing about suppositories.

The foodie quenellecomes from the German Knödel, ‘dumpling’ — related to the English noodlewhich once could also be a dumpling. Knödel may derive from a word for ‘knot’, but an ingenious etymology traces it to the Dolomite language of Ladin, in which menudli meant ‘a little piece of dough in a soup’, from the Latin minutulus.

This has nothing to do with the noodles or idiots who abound in life. That noodle is probably from noddle, ‘head’, itself perhaps from Latin nodulus, but more likely from nod. Nodding often marks the onset of sleep. In translations of Horace’s remark in the Ars Poetica, Homer was said to nod: ‘Indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus.’ I’m not sure who cemented nod in this context, for an early translator, Ben Jonson, put it differently, making Horace say that he is not surprised to find bad things in lesser poets but is ‘more / Angry, if once I heare good Homer snore’. Perhaps it was Dryden, who did observe in 1677 that ‘honest Homer nods sometimes’. He would have been impressed by my husband’s elision of assent into slumber with no discernible join.

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