As I'm dealing a lot of recipes and text on cooking written in English, I'm confronted all the time with a trend which makes understanding quite hard sometimes.

The original French word "sauté" has a very specific meaning. It requires very high heat, so high that the vegetable pieces would scorch if left for more than a few seconds on the pan - so they are continuously moved around in a "jumping" motion. This is the meaning which is used in cooking textbooks like The professional chef, and also in the Wikipedia article. This is what cooking professionals are taught, and what they think about, when they see the word.

There are tons of recipes published in popular media which start with "sauté the onions". From a culinary point of view, "sauté" (in its professional meaning) would be the wrong thing to do, or at least suboptimal. But from my observation, nobody is doing it anyway. What they are doing is "shallow frying" the onions, with other, more specific words, also applicable in some cases, such as "sweating" and "caramelizing".

By now, I have seen such prevalence of the term, that I think it's fair to say that it can be considered a second meaning. We have the worst sort of polysemy: the same word is used by two groups (but confusingly in the same domain) with two conflicting meanings.

Can anybody shed some information on when this trend started, and is there known evidence for the reasons why it started at all?

  • 1
    "homonyms" are words that happen to be spelled or pronounced the same by chance, but are otherwise unrelated. That's hardly the case here. Obviously the new meaning is derived from the old, perhaps as a result of misunderstanding or normal language drift.
    – Barmar
    Jan 5, 2015 at 22:20
  • 1
    This is called 'broadening'. From english--language.weebly.com: Broadening is the change in the meaning of a word by expansion, so that the word is applicable in more contexts than it previously was and means more than it previously did. An example of broadening is the word "business", which originally meant "a state of being busy, careworn or anxious", but has now broadened to include all kinds of work occupations. // This can be useful, but, as with the case you point out, can be undesirable, blurring important distinctions. Jan 5, 2015 at 22:27
  • @barmar feel free to edit my text for proper usage of linguistic terms. I have only ever learned the "same word, different meaning" definition of "homonym" without hearing the "unrelated" part mentioned - maybe this is a parallel case where the commonly known meaning of "homonym" is different between laypeople and professional linguists.
    – rumtscho
    Jan 5, 2015 at 22:27
  • @rumtscho Well, I think your whole premise that these are mutual exclusive is misguided. The common use is just a variation on the original definition. It's not like the new meaning refers to baking, a completely different process. They're just different forms of frying.
    – Barmar
    Jan 5, 2015 at 22:36
  • 1
    @David Hammen Ignorant people cause a lot of word shifts. When (as here) misunderstandings can arise, it is senseless to assume the earlier meaning / the meaning with the better pedigree (oh, I use 'strychnine' to mean 'saccharine'). On the other hand, terminology should be clarified at the start of a book, lecture, article etc. Jan 6, 2015 at 2:00

1 Answer 1



VERB (sautés, sautéing, sautéed or sautéd)


Fry quickly in a little hot fat:

> He sautéed the onions in olive oil.


  1. Ballet A jump off both feet, landing in the same position.

The professional culinary use of the word is true to the image of the etymology:

1813, from French sauté, literally "jumped, bounced" (in reference to tossing continually while cooking),

past participle of sauter "to jump,"

from Latin saltare "to hop, dance," frequentative of salire "to leap" (see salient (adj.)).

As an adjective, "fried quickly," from 1869. As a verb from 1859.

The etymology does concede fry quickly as a meaning from 1869, so the culinary nuances of fry quickly seem to be under consideration. The 1851 publication, Frank Forester's Fish and Fishing of the United States and ... offers a theoretical point of departure:

Scale and well dry six Pearches, and make incisions here and there on each side of them ; then put a quarter of a pound of butter into a sauté-pan, season your fishes with pepper and salt, put them in the sauté pan and fry them gently, turning...

This is no iron-clad explanation, but if people were routinely instructed to use a sauté-pan to fry things gently in a quarter pound of butter, it would be a matter of time before this frying gently became associated with the word sauté.

In 1879, it seems confusion was again articulated in Cooley's Cyclopædia of Practical Receipts

According to the (common) mode in which all objects are cooked which are called fried, it would answer to the French word 'sauté,' or the old English term 'frizzled' but to fry any object, it should be to immersed in very hot fat, oil, or butter...

Comparing sauté to frizzle:



  1. Fry or grill with a sizzling noise:


1.1 Fry until crisp, shriveled, or burnt:

Since the common use has broadened so far, it might be appropriate to consider the narrower definition of sauté to be part of a professional dialect.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.