How come they call it “ketchup” sometimes and “catsup” other times?

Dear Cecil:

How come the bottled red stuff you see in stores is sometimes called ketchup and sometimes catsup? It all looks the same to me.

Cecil replies:

There is an interesting answer for this, George, and then there is the real answer. The interesting answer is that our word ketchup, which originally meant a spicy fish sauce, comes from the Malay kechap, which Dutch traders transliterated as ketjap. But it turns out the Malays had borrowed the word from the Chinese ke-tsiap, which I gather sounds more like catsup. So you could argue that European merchants called their spicy fish sauce ketchup or catsup depending on whether they’d bought it in Malaya or China.

Unfortunately, it appears the Chinese themselves had two versions of the word, ke-tsiap and koe-chiap. So the real answer, unless some 17th-century Chinese shows up to clarify things, is that we just don’t know why there are two versions, there just are. As a kid I used to get mad when my father fed me that line, but I’m starting to understand how the old guy felt.

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