Anatomy Of A Trifle

The older I get, the more frequently I find myself immersed in conversations that begin with deep, probing questions like: “Why is this called coleslaw?” Over time, I’ve noticed that regardless of both participant and topic, these conversations all follow roughly the same simple progression:

1) Question: Why do they call it coleslaw?

2) Conjecture: It’s named after the inventor, Bill Cole. Anything chopped can be a slaw.

3) Clarification: Are all slaws based in white goo? Why is it sometimes also called “cold” slaw?

4) Compounding Conjecture: Slaws consist of chopped items bound together with a creamy additive, primarily mayo, but also yogurt. Coldslaw is likely a bastardized southern pronunciation.

5) Repeat steps 3 and 4 (where possible).

6) Digression: Wouldn’t it suck to be named Joel Slaw?

7) Closure: Hey, your name kind of sounds like Slaw. Maybe you should change it. Slaw Schang.

Two things can bring the discussion back to life after closure has occurred. These are typically a) an event or occasion that is reminiscent of the topic (e.g. stepping over something that resembles cole slaw on the sidewalk) or b) derision of a friend in the presence of others NOT party to the original discussion (“He actually thinks coleslaw is named after a person”).

The only way to ensure permanent closure is to research the answer. If the question is one that is known to have a definitive answer, the person who provided the majority of the conjecture (i.e. the person with the most to gain AND lose) will conduct the appropriate follow-up research. Once the answer is known, both individuals will forevermore compete to first recite the answer when it comes up at dinner parties, happy hours, and double dates.

Oh and according to Random House:

The word coleslaw–also written as cole-slaw or cole slaw–refers to a salad of raw shredded cabbage, usually dressed with a mayonnaise or vinaigrette.

Coleslaw is of Dutch origin, as is the dish it describes. The Dutch word is koolsla, formed from kool ‘cabbage’, related to the English words cole and kale, and sla, a reduced form of salade, borrowed from French, the same source of English salad. So for all its admittedly unusual form, the word literally has the mundane meaning ‘cabbage salad’, just what it is.

The word coleslaw is an Americanism, first found in the late eighteenth century, a period of heavy borrowing of Dutch words into American English.

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