The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Mayonnaise’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

Where does the word mayonnaise come from? Many people will confidently say they know the answer, but perhaps the matter is a little more complex – and a little more interesting – than is widely believed.

Before we delve into the origin of the word ‘mayonnaise’, then, let’s make it a multiple-choice quiz question.

Where does the word ‘mayonnaise’ come from?

a) The port of Mahon

b) The French manier

c) The city of Bayonne

d) Nobody’s quite sure

The answer most people would give is a) because everyone knows that ‘mayonnaise’ is named after the Minorcan port of Mahon. Except there’s a little more to it than that. Quite a lot more, in fact – so that the most accurate answer has to be d) Nobody’s quite sure.

Of course, we can be sure what mayonnaise is: a thick, creamy, and, let’s face it, delicious sauce prepared from egg yolks, oil, and an acidic component (either vinegar or lemon juice, usually). But where did the word originate?

As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) observes, several possible etymologies for ‘mayonnaise’ have been suggested, but nobody can say for sure which is the correct one. The New English Dictionary, published in 1906, posited that it was from mahonnais, i.e., ‘of Port Mahon’, the capital of Minorca. Mahon was taken by the French (led by the victorious Duc de Richelieu, a distant descendant of the famous Cardinal Richelieu) in 1756, so the ‘French connection’ to Mahon is, indeed, solid.

The Battle of Minorca took place in May 1756, and although it’s perhaps not one of the most famous of European battles, it was a pivotal one: it was the first naval battle in the Seven Years’ War of 1756-63. The battle was fought between French and British fleets, and the Brits were roundly trounced. The British subsequently to withdraw to Gibraltar, leading to the Fall of Minorca.

However, as the OED notes, there are a couple of potential problems with this theory. First, the word mayonnaise doesn’t turn up anywhere in print until 1804, almost half a century after the French seized Mahon. Second, it’s unclear why mahonnaise would have become mayonnaise so quickly: the first mention of the foodstuff is in mayonnaise de poulet in 1804.

So, perhaps mayonnaise was not named after Mahon at all, but after somewhere else. And there is a compelling candidate: the city of Bayonne. Bayonnaise is, the OED informs us, attested in the same meaning only two years later. Many commentators have proposed that mayonnaise arose, therefore, as a corruption of Bayonnaise.

Of course, one might object to this and argue that, if it’s possible that Bayonnaise became corrupted into mayonnaise, why couldn’t mahonnais have become similarly corrupted into mayonnaise? If a B can become an m, why couldn’t an h have become a y?

What’s more, the whole suggestion that mayonnaise came from Bayonne appears to have arisen because of a snobbish Frenchman whose nationalistic fervour may have clouded his impartiality on the matter. Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière, a celebrated gastronome during the time of Napoleon Bonaparte, didn’t like referring to the new sauce as ‘mayonnaise’ precisely because the word wasn’t French. He preferred ‘bayonnaise’ because it was named after a French city.

Yet another theory, however, posits that mayonnaise isn’t named after anywhere at all. The French chef M. A. Carême (1784-1833) preferred the spelling magnonnaise and believed that the word was from the French verb manier meaning ‘to handle’ (related to our English words manual and manufacturing, among many others, all derived from the Latin manus, ‘hand’), because of the way the sauce was prepared.

Indeed, other theories have been proposed, too. Some have suggest that mayonnaise is really ‘moyennaise’ from the Old French for ‘egg yolk’, that it’s from the verb mailler meaning ‘beat’ (because of the beating of the yolks while preparing the sauce) or that it’s actually derived from Magnon (Lot-et-Garonne). But none of these is given much weight.

So there are three main theories: that mayonnaise is named after the port of Mahon, that it’s named after the French city of Bayonne, or that it’s from the French manier.

If we had to pick the most probable option (perhaps a dangerous thing to do in the field of etymology), we would have to go with Mahon, for all of the doubt that exists around it as the true origin of the word. For one thing, although we know it as Mahon, the port is known as Maó in Menorquín, so it’s possible that Maó lent itself to mayonnaise, especially with a few uncertain pronunciations along the way as the French struggled to pick up the local lingo.

So, if we want to answer the question ‘where did the word mayonnaise come from?’ with complete honesty, we’d have to reply, ‘we don’t know’. Although the Minorcan port of Mahon remains one of the possible origins of the word, it cannot be established for certain. The word’s true origins are, therefore, something of a mystery – but a delicious mystery, all the same.