Food words have some seriously gnarly roots, but follow them far back enough, and you can see culinary history all tangled up in a few short syllables. Welcome to Eat Your Words.
Yogurt has become such a ubiquitous part of American breakfast-and-healthy-snack culture that it’s been naturalized as a plain English word. Like zucchini or pita, it’s completed the journey from utterly alien loan-word to humdrum noun, one that we can throw around without the italics of foreignness or “according to locals” scare quotes.
But “yogurt” began in Turkish, as yoghurt (there go the italics!). The Turkish word itself comes from an Old Turkish root, yog, meaning something like “condense” or “intensify,” which is pretty much what happens to milk when you let it curdle into yogurt. Makes sense! And the actual dish has been around for thousands of years–not surprising for something as simple as “old warm milk”–and was popular in ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece (where they called it oxygala, “acid milk”).
Once the word made its way to English, though, the going got a little choppy. The first written mention of the gloopy stuff comes in 1625, when a travel writer named Samuel Purchas noted that the Turks don’t “eate much Milke, except it bee made sower, which they call Yoghurd.” And then we were off to the races: by the 1800s, people were writing of “yahourt,” “yaghourt,” “yaghourt,” “yogurd,” “yoghourt,” “yooghort,” and “yughard,” and even Evelyn Waugh, in his 1925 novel A Handful of Dust, had a character gobbling “her morning yoghourt.” Without an Academie Francaise-style language dictatorship to keep English in line, stealing words from non-Latin alphabets inevitably gets kind of messy.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that, in modern Turkish, the word spelled yoghurt is actually pronounced more like the French word for it, yaourt, with the “gh” in the middle of the Turkish word just lengthening the vowel before it. It’s unclear whether Samuel Purchas got the hard G in his “yoghurd” from writing down what a Turkish speaker with an old-timey dialect was saying to him, or transliterating from the Arabic script used in the Ottoman Empire, but either way, we took that hard-G to heart. It helps that, compared to the very Frenchy yaourt, “yogurt” is a lot easier for an English speaker to say.