The public’s primary reaction to my Immigrant’s Table column on seviche had nothing to do with its central premise — that the Peruvian dish should become an American staple in summer — but was focused almost exclusively on The Post’s official spelling of the dish.
Many readers, both in the story’s comment section and on Facebook, loathed our spelling of “seviche.” They prefer “ceviche,” which a number of readers insist is the “correct” way to spell the dish in Peru. Sample comment: “I had never seen it spelled with an ‘s’ before. Ceviche and cebiche, I’ve seen. Seviche doesn’t look right.”
The Post relies on Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, as our in-house source on spelling questions, and the reference book prefers, for whatever reason, “seviche” over “ceviche.” The dictionary provides no etymological information to justify its choice. (Just for the record, the Oxford English Dictionary prefers “seviche,” too.)
Trying to track down the root of “seviche” or “ceviche” or “cebiche” — the principal spellings of the word — will send you down an etymological rabbit hole, where you will remained trapped until the rescuers arrive.
The Royal Spanish Academy dictionary prefers the spelling of “cebiche” and lists two words as its root: “assukkabag” and “sikbag.” (Incidentally, the academy also includes entries under the spellings of “ceviche,” which it considers American, and “seviche,” which the dictionary indicates is used in countries such as Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru.)
So what the heck is “assukkabag”? It apparently is the Hispanic/Arabic root word for “escabeche,” the Spanish-Latin dish of cooked fish that’s then marinated in a spiced vinegar. (The theory is that Arabs introduced the dish to Spain as they spread across Asia and Europe; the Spanish then brought it to the New World.) Assukkabag has its roots in the Persian word, “sikbag” or “sikbaj,” which according to the Language of Food blog, was a dish of “sweet and sour stewed beef.”
“Sikbaj,” writes blog author and Stanford University professor Dan Jurafsky, comes from the Persian words “sik” (meaning ”vinegar”) and “ba” (“broth”).
“Sikbaj must have been amazingly delicious, because it was a favorite of kings and concubines for at least 300 years, and celebrated in story after story,” Jurafsky notes.
Then seviche has its roots in Persian cooking, right?
But wait. According to widely quoted Peruvian historian Javier Pulgar Vidal, seviche has its roots in the native Quechua word “siwichi,” which means either “fresh fish” or “young fish.” Then there’s a theory so wacky — concerning Peruvian fishers and English-speaking folk — that I barely want to dignify it with a mention.
So where does all this etymological research leave us in terms of the correct spelling of “seviche”? Nowhere, that’s where.
Why then do some insist “seviche” should be spelled “ceviche”? If anything, given that two of the apparent root words (“siwichi” and “sikbaj”) start with an “s,” you could argue that Webster’s spelling is more historically accurate.
Perhaps the choice is cultural. Maybe Spaniards (and natives in the New World lands they colonized) prefer “cebiche” because the spelling is closer to the Spanish dish, “escabeche.” Perhaps differences in pronunciation have influenced the preferred spelling. (After all, Spanish speakers pronounce the English “v” like a “b.”) Perhaps the choice is totally random.
Any linguists or historians out there who can shed more light on the Great Seviche Spelling Controversy?