My first two word requests come from Charlie and Dad, who both need to eat breakfast before they read my blog next time. If reading this post makes you hungry for a muffin, make sure you have a cup of coffee before you sit down tomorrow to read Dad’s request.
The food history behind this favorite little morning munchable is actually a lot more interesting than the etymology. “Muffin” has barely changed since its point of origin in the English’s close linguistic cousin, German. I didn’t have a chance to look this one up in the O.E.D. yet, so I’m working with the slightly reduced reliability of the A.H.C.D., but even so, it seems reasonable to suggest that “muffin” did come from Muffe, a word which meant “a small cake.”
The interesting thing, if you can believe Alton Brown and Wikipedia, is that the pastry to which the term was originally implied was most likely more like what Americans call an “English muffin,” which is a yeast bread that gets cooked on a griddle. The modern muffin–the quickbread that gets baked in the oven–is just that: modern. Relatively speaking, anyway. Muffe is recorded as extant in Middle Low German, spoken c. 1100 – 1600 AD, and yeast-free American muffins don’t show up consistently in the record until the 1800s.
The fact that muffins don’t actually become “small cakes” until a few hundred years after the word may have been used to describe a specific pastry gives some credit to an alternate etymology that has “muffin” somehow deriving from the Old French (c. 1000 – 1300 AD) description of soft bread, moufflet. Note also that Old French is slightly older than Middle Low German: it is not inconceivable that some bold, traveling German could have picked up a French word and brought it home to be chipped at and polished before passing it along to English.
The traveling German may not be the most politically probable explanation, given the history of the languages and the way their people were most likely to interact. English is a Germanic language at heart, but it evolved in a country that was at constant war with or against their neighbors across the Channel, and so the development of Middle and Elizabethan English was influenced more by Old French than by Middle German, high or low.
Both words and all the stories that could be used to explain their connection to “muffin” have their merits and their drawbacks. In a time where paper, ink, and literacy were pricey commodities, the written record for tracing things like food names is bound to show a bit of paucity. If I find anything more conclusive when I dig into the O.E.D., I’ll share it, but for the nonce, I will leave your imaginations to their etymological work.