There are few things that I love more than finding out that two seemingly very different words share the same root. Like the shared history of pomegranate and hand grenade, these connections between word origins sometimes surface in decidedly non-linguistic places. Today’s strange linguistic history comes from Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. McGee’s 700 page tome of food science, history, and myth covers everything from the difference between curds and whey to the development of the French sauce families to the chemical explanation of the affect of cooking on meat pigments. It’s a wildly interesting book for any serious cook or connoisseur, but probably boring for people who don’t share that passion for food.
In his chapter on dairy, McGee discusses the various chemical and physical components of milk, cream, cheese, ice cream, and yogurt (among other products). His section on cream opens with the sentence, “The word cream comes from the Greek chriein, which means ‘to anoint,’ and which is also the root word of Christ (‘the anointed one’).” No, this isn’t a dream that Dan Brown had after falling asleep with a half-eaten pint of Ben and Jerry’s—the cream Christ connection is real. McGee goes on to explain that,
The link between ancient ritual and rich food is oil, the substance used to anoint the chosen, and the defining element of cream. Cream is a form of milk in which the fat globules have become more concentrated than usual, whether by rising to the top in a bottle or spinning off from the heavier water phase in a centrifuge.
A quick look on the Oxford English dictionary revealed a little more interesting history. The obsolete definition of cream is “the consecrated oil used in anointing” which stems from chrism, “Oil mingled with balm, consecrated for use as an unguent in the administration of certain sacraments in the Eastern and Western Churches.”
The etymology of chrism comes from the Latin chrisma and the Greek xpavua for “anointing, unction.” The feminine verb form, xpiew, “to anoint” through Latin form became cresma, from which the Old French cresme (crême) originated. Old English directly adopted the Latin form as crisma, which then evolved in Midde English to crisme. From 1300 on, crème (creyme, crayme, later creame, cream) was in use, but in the 16th century, French and English modified the form to include the ch for chrême and chrism and the form, cream went out of use. Cream, as we know it to mean today—as related to milk—, first appeared in the English language in the 14th century and was a popular application of cresme or chrism, with a change of gender for the French to la crême.
As for Christ, the word’s history stems from the Latin Christ-us and the Greek xpavua—McGee was right, cream and Christ do share the same etymological history. Xpavua itself is actually a translation of the Hebrew mashiax (with lines over the “i” and the “a”), yahweh, “the Lord’s Anointed.” Subsequently the word evolved in Old Saxon and Old High German as crist and krist (also, only in Old High German, christ). In its English form, the word first appeared in 950 CE in translations of the Old Testament.
Once again I’m amazed at the richness of the English language—religion and food connected through the act of anointing. In that food and religion are, along with language, extremely important aspects of human culture, it shouldn’t be surprising. Perhaps Ben and Jerry could take note of the linguistic history when they unveil their next flavor; a suggestion: Anointed Berry Swirl.