history of the word ‘mayonnaise’



photograph: Farm Shop



The noun mayonnaise denotes a thick, creamy sauce consisting of egg yolks emulsified with oil and seasoned, used as a cold dressing or accompaniment for salad, eggs, fish, etc., or as the base for other sauces.

It is used in two French phrases: la mayonnaise prend, literally, the mayonnaise is thickening, means things are looking good, and faire monter la mayonnaise, literally, to beat the mayonnaise up, means to stir things up, to stir it up.

The word mayonnaise is first attested in Erinnerungen aus Paris im Jahre 1804 (Memories from Paris in the year 1804 – Berlin, 1804), by the German author August von Kotzebue (1761-1819); this book mentions

eine mayonnaise de poulet, eine galantine de Volaille, ein cotelette à la minute
(a mayonnaise of chicken, a galantine of poultry, a minute-cutlet)

And, in Le cuisinier impérial, ou l’art de faire la cuisine et la pâtisserie pour toutes les fortunes (The imperial cook, or the art of cooking and pastry-making for all the fortunes – Paris, 1806), a certain A. Viard used terms such as la mayonnaise (the mayonnaise), sauce mayonnaise (mayonnaise sauce), une mayonnaise froide (a cold mayonnaise) and filets de sole en mayonnaise (fillets of sole in mayonnaise).

The origin of the word is unclear. In Sauces: Reflections of a Chef (Paris, 2014), the French chef Yannick Alléno (born 1968) writes, with Vicent Brenot:

Many sources link mayonnaise to Mahón, capital of the Balearic island of Minorca. The phonetic closeness is all the more intriguing given that, in Catalan, Mahón is called “Maó” and its inhabitants “Maonès”. According to one widespread theory, the Duke of Richelieu (nephew of the famous cardinal, undefeated military leader, great lover of fine food and, according to Dumas, a fine cook) gave a banquet to celebrate the taking of the town from the British on 28th June 1756*. At this point, this theory itself divides into two different versions.
According to some, the duke’s chef drew inspiration from a local sauce made from olive oil, egg yolk, and lemon juice to which were added, according to taste, fine herbs, garlic, pepper, and salt. This recipe is closer to modern aioli, the only mayonnaise derivative that can withstand the use of olive oil (in place of a more neutral oil, such as sunflower) in order to stand up to the power of the garlic.
Others maintain that the same chef wanted to prepare a sauce made from egg yolks and cream, of which his master was fond. Unable to find any cream, he had the idea of replacing it with emulsified olive oil.

What seems to support this theory is that, for example, (à la) Marengo, designating chicken or veal sautéed in oil, served with a tomato sauce and traditionally garnished with eggs and crayfish, is named after Marengo, a village in northern Italy and the site of a battle in which Napoleon Bonaparte decisively defeated the Austrians in 1800.

However, the analogy with (à la) Marengo would lead to (à la) Mahón, not to mahonnaise. Additionally, the name of the sauce is first attested forty-eight years after the taking of Mahón, and in the form mayonnaise, not mahonnaise.

The Larousse gastronomique (1997) indicates that the French chef Prosper Montagné (1865-1948) suggested that mayonnaise is an alteration of an unattested moyeunaise, derived from the archaic noun moyeu, meaning egg yolk. This is unlikely because the word appeared as mayonnaise and because moyeu had fallen out of current use when the mayonnaise was invented.

According to another theory, mayonnaise is an alteration of bayonnaise, feminine of bayonnais, from the name of the south-western French town of Bayonne and the suffix -ais/-aise (corresponding to the English suffix -ese as in Milanese). This theory was first put forward by Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière (1758-1837) in Manuel des amphitryons (The hosts’ handbook – Paris, 1808); about “la bayonnaise de cabillaud” (“the bayonnaise of cod”), he wrote:

Les puristes, en cuisine, ne sont pas d’accord sur la dénomination de ces sortes de ragoûts ; les uns disent mayonnaise, d’autres mahonnaise, et d’autres bayonnaise. Le premier de ces mots n’est pas français ; et le second indique une ville où rien n’est renommé pour la bonne chère ; c’est ce qui fait que nous nous sommes décidés pour bayonnaise, dont l’étymologie est dans le nom d’une ville qui renferme beaucoup de Gourmands inventeurs, et qui, de plus, donne naissance chaque année aux meilleurs jambons de l’Europe.
Purists, in cookery, do not agree on the denomination of these sorts of ragouts; some say mayonnaise, others mahonnaise, and others bayonnaise. The first of these words is not French; and the second indicates a town where nothing is renowned for good cheer; this is why we have decided in favour of bayonnaise, whose etymology is in the name of a town which contains many inventive gourmands and which, furthermore, gives birth every year to the best hams in Europe.

But nothing supports this theory merely based on subjectivity: the first recorded form is mayonnaise, and the earliest instance of bayonnaise is precisely in this text, which might indicate that Grimod de La Reynière invented it. (The earliest instance of mahonnaise is also in this text.)

In Le Pâtissier royal parisien, ou traité élémentaire et pratique de la pâtisserie ancienne et moderne (The Parisian royal pastry cook, or elementary and practical treatise on pastry-making – Paris, 1815), the French chef Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833) disagreed with Grimod de La Reynière, and argued that the correct spelling is magnonnaise, from the French verb manier (also spelt magner), meaning to handle, referring to the motion imparted to the original emulsion to incorporate the oil:

A propos de sauce magnonnaise, l’auteur de l’Almanach des Gourmands nous dit que les puristes en cuisine ne sont pas d’accord sur la dénomination de ces sortes de ragoûts. (D’abord ce n’est point un ragoût, mais bien une sauce.) Les uns disent mayonnaise ; d’autres mahonnaise, et d’autres bayonnaise. Je veux bien que ces mots soient usités par les cuisiniers vulgaires ; mais moi, je proteste que jamais, dans nos grandes cuisines (c’est là que résident les puristes), ces trois mots ne sont cités, et que nous dénommons toujours cette sauce par l’épithète de magnonnaise. Mais, comment se fait-il que M. Grimod de la Reynière, qui ne manque pas de logique, n’ait pas vu, au premier coup-d’œil, que magnonnaise, venant du verbe manier, est le nom propre qui caractérise cette sauce ? Elle ne reçoit réellement son existence que par le maniement continuel qu’elle éprouve dans sa préparation ; or, je le répète, le mot magnonnaise est bien véritablement le nom propre de la chose ; et j’en reste plus convaincu encore, lorsque je considère que ce n’est qu’à force de manier des corps liquides ensemble (comme on le voit aisément dans les détails de la recette de cette sauce), que l’on finit par obtenir une sauce veloutée très-moelleuse et très-appétissante, unique dans son genre, puisqu’elle ne ressemble en rien aux autres sauces qui ne s’obtiennent que par les réductions du fourneau.
Voilà ce qu’il fallait méditer avant que de vouloir changer le langage des vrais praticiens ; car les arts et métiers ont une langue technique qui leur est particulière et que les littérateurs gourmands ne sauraient changer sans faire tort à leurs connaissances éminentes dans le grand art alimentaire.
About magnonnaise sauce, the author of the Gourmands’ Almanac tells us that purists in cookery do not agree on the denomination of these sorts of ragouts. (In the first place, this is not a ragout, but really a sauce.) Some say mayonnaise; others mahonnaise, and others bayonnaise. I do not mind those words being used by the vulgar cooks; but as for me, I protest that never, in our great kitchens (this is where purists reside), those three words are cited, and that we always denominate this sauce with the epithet of magnonnaise. But how come Mr Grimod de la Reynière, who does not lack logic, has not seen, at first glance, that magnonnaise, coming from the verb manier, is the proper name that characterises this sauce? It really receives its existence only from the continual motion that it experiences in its preparation; now, I repeat it, the word magnonnaise is truly the proper name of the thing; and I remain even more convinced of it, when I consider that it is only by keeping on imparting motion to liquid bodies together (as is easily seen in the details of the recipe for this sauce), that one ends up obtaining a velvety sauce very smooth and very appetising, since it is nothing like the other sauces, which are obtained only by the stove reductions.
This is what had to be meditated upon before wanting to change the true practitioners’ language; for the arts and crafts have a technical language that is peculiar to them and that the gourmand men of letters cannot change without harming their eminent knowledge in the great culinary art.

However, granted that the word was derived from the verb manier, this theory does not account for the third syllable of magnonnaise.

One of the most extravagant theories is found, for example, in Le Mémorial historique et géographique de la pâtisserie (The historical and geographical memorial of pastry-making – Paris, 1900), by the French pastry cook and historian of the culinary art Pierre Lacam (1836-1902). According to this theory, at the Battle of Arques, on 29th September 1589, Henry IV of France (1553-1610) owed his victory over Charles de Lorraine, Duke of Mayenne, in part to the latter’s gluttony, so that the sauce was derisively named after him:

Sous Henri IV, cette sauce n’avait pas de nom. On l’appelait sauce froide. Le duc de Mayenne qui aimait beaucoup cette sauce, étant à table au moment où les troupes d’Henri IV avançaient, et mangeant du poulet froid à cette sauce, ne voulut pas monter à cheval avant d’avoir fini et perdit la bataille d’Arques. C’est de là qu’on appela cette sauce mayennaise, tournant en ridicule le duc.
Under Henri IV, this sauce did not have a name. It was called cold sauce. The duke of Mayenne, who was very fond of this sauce, being at the table as Henri IV’s troops were advancing, and eating cold chicken with this sauce, did not want to mount his horse before finishing and lost the Battle of Arques. That is why this sauce was called mayennaise, making the duke an object of ridicule.


Incidentally, it was for failing to relieve Minorca in 1756 that Admiral John Byng was shot—“pour encourager les autres”, as the French writer, playwright and poet Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet – 1694-1778) wrote in Candide, ou l’Optimisme (1759).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.