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In Belgium there are three stories about the etymology of French fries. And I'd like to know once and for all which one is correct.

The most popular story is probably the following, because it allows us to tell people French fries are actually not French at all, but Belgian instead:

During WWI the allied soldiers tasted French fries in Wallonia, because the people there speak French, they thought that they were in France instead, and thus called them French fries.

The second and third story are somewhat related and sound more logical to me. It either refers to:

1) Frenching, which is a method of cutting foods

or

2) French frying, which is a method of frying foods

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Or maybe someone named "French" invented them? –  Oldcat Mar 24 at 22:37
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Or perhaps Thomas Jefferson popularised the term. –  Edwin Ashworth Mar 24 at 22:41
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It is not known exactly and there is no "correct" one. There are generally accepted stories. –  ermanen Mar 24 at 22:47
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@ermanen - True, but at least we can eliminate the WWI origin story; the term was pre-existing. Here's a reference from 1901, for example: books.google.com/… –  MT_Head Mar 24 at 22:49
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... Yes, even the Phoenicians had warchips. –  Edwin Ashworth Mar 24 at 22:50
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2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Straight Dope has a good explanation and here is the answer from the article:

For also in the 1840s, pomme frites ("fried potatoes") first appeared in Paris. Sadly, we don't know the name of the ingenious chef who first sliced the potato into long slender pieces and fried them. But they were immediately popular, and were sold on the streets of Paris by push-cart vendors.

Frites spread to America where they were called French fried potatoes. You asked how they got their name--pretty obvious, I'd say: they came from France, and they were fried potatoes, so they were called "French fried potatoes." The name was shortened to "french fries" in the 1930s.

By the way, the verb "to french" in cooking has come to mean to cut in long, slender strips, and some people insist that "french fries" come from that term. However, the French fried potato was known since the middle 1800s, while the OED cites the first use of the verb "to french" around 1895, so it appears pretty convincing that "french fried potatoes" came before the verb "frenching." The origin of the name is thus the country of origin French and not the cooking term french.


Here is a passage about how it is introduced to America from a book called "Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent" By John Reader:

enter image description here

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I spend a lot of time in France and they are adamant that they don't have anything to do with French fries... Some relatives there are very into cuisine (and they would gladly take French ownership of anything) and I have heard that this is a made up tale. –  RyeɃreḁd Mar 24 at 23:12
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I agree that this just sounds ridiculous; anyone introducing a potato to a king of France is most likely to be sent to the guillotine. –  TylerH Mar 25 at 1:43
    
If the French really wanted to disown fries, rather than pommes frites, they would call them something anglais, like la maladie anglaise (syphilis) or la capote anglaise (condom). –  Spehro Pefhany Mar 25 at 4:35
    
-1 This answer contains some misleading copying and pasting from The Straight Dope, who tell the story of the French court as a background to the potato's popularity. "So how did potatoes come to their present popularity?" is the missing line from the first paragraph. Only later is: "And so we arrive at your question." –  Hugo Mar 25 at 12:58
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@ermanen You mention a source which posits that the French made potatoes famous. It is misleading to claim that that text backs up the etymology of "french fries". –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Mar 25 at 15:04
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French fries get their name from French frying, a method of frying food.

The OED has French fries as originally and chiefly North American, dating to 1902 but dating to at least 1886, as found by Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations:

1886 Springfield (MA) Republican 12 Oct. 1 (GenealogyBank) REMEMBER that the place to buy Saratoga Potatoes is at No 4 Dwight-street (near State), also French fries Wednesdays and Saturdays.

An earlier name is French fried potatoes, dating back to 1856 in Eliza Warren's Cookery for Maids of All Work:

French Fried Potatoes -- Cut new potatoes in thin slices, put them in boiling fat, and a little salt; fry both sides of a light golden brown colour; drain dry from fat, and serve hot.

This method of French frying goes back further, as found in The Cook and Housewife's Manual from 1828:

The French fry sliced potatoes in goose dripping which has a very high relish and before serving drain them on a towel before the fire.

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