October 6, 2010 5:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Trivia geeks and word nerds (I am both) love nouns of assemblage. That is, the noun used to refer to a collective. Everyone knows a school of fish and most people know a pride of lions, and some people are familiar with a cache of jewels, but if you really get into it there’s a lot of deeply obscure (and rightly so) words in this category: it’s a treasure trove for the really geeky, a cache of verbal jewels if you will. Have you heard of a pod of whales? A murder of  crows? An exaltation of sparrows? You haven’t? Well your life has been pretty good so far, why mess with a good thing.

Depending on whom you ask, pigs travel either in droves, herds, litters, farrows (for piglets) or sounders (for wild pigs). But anyone who’s ever ordered of the Sides section of a breakfast menu knows that bacon comes in rashers. I got to wondering, because that’s the kind of word nerd I am, what is a rasher of bacon? It’s like a ration, but less restrictive. It’s not at all like a rash. What does it mean?

I checked Wikipedia. No etymology there, except to say that in the UK a rasher is also sometimes a “collop” which is somewhere between a scallop, dollop, a calliope, and a trollop, which sounds like an enjoyable weekend but sheds no light on the subject. Wikipedia thinks that collop is derived from the Swedish word kallops and not the French escalope, but that leaves us no better than we were before.

I turned to the OED (a frequent source of bacon wisdom). The earliest use of the word is in 1592, but the origin is mysterious there too: the editors speculate it could be a piece “rashly or hastily roasted,” but does that sound like bacon to you? I should think not! Maybe the flash-seared meat at La Salsa, but not my low-and-slow-roasted bacon. I did enjoy discovering the John Dryden quote from 1678: “Drink heavy draughts of ale and snatch the homely rasher from the coals.” Will do, Mr. Dryden!

But the rest of what I learned just confused me more. As early as 1634, rasher was being used to describe a slice or serving of almost any food: “We will have a Cherry-Tart cut into Rashers and broyled.” And apparently, a rasher is also a red-colored rock-fish of California (Sebastichthys miniatus). Then a naval submarine was named after it, the USS Rasher. So now when I order bacon I might get a slice of cherry tart with rock fish on top? It’s enough to drive a man to despair, or to flee on a submarine.

None the wiser, I closed the cover of my reference books. I’m not giving up, but discoveries of great lexicographical significance are never made over night: like frying bacon, it is a low and slow process. Great steps forward in progress are uncovered by a series of deliberate decisions. Patience is of the utmost behavior. I must resolve to forever indulge in rashers, but never to be myself rash.

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