What does “delicatessen” actually mean? After deli meat recall, learn the name of what caused the risk.

On Tuesday, a division of Tyson Foods Inc recalled 380,000 pounds of deli meat, saying that it may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. The meat was used in sandwiches sold at Wal-Mart stores. Luckily, there have been no reported illnesses.

Unfortunately, we often hear about salmonella. (Read more about salmonella here.) How does it differ from listeria?

Listeria is a hardy bacterium that can cause food poisoning. It’s commonly found in soil, stream water, sewage, plants, and food.

Listeria causeslisteriosis. This infection is rare but potentially lethal. Listeriosis sometimes manifests as meningitis, “inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain or spinal cord.” It can also affect newborns because it has the capacity to penetrate the placenta.

So why is deli meat at risk? Listeria has been found in uncooked meats and processed foods. Even though deli meat is not raw, contamination can occur before the meat has been cooked. Meat processing plants usually follow strict sanitation regulations to prevent listeria contamination.

Let’s veer slightly off topic for a moment and consider something more pleasant: the word “deli.”

The word was shortened from delicatessen in 1954. While we usually don’t associate delis or deli meat with fancy or gourmet food, the term delicatessen means “delicacies” or “fine food.”

Though it is a German borrowing, ultimately delicatessen derives from the Latin adjective delicauts, which means “giving pleasure, delightful, pleasing,” and also “overly-luxurious, spoiled” and “fragile.”

Unlike in the U.S., European delicatessens are places to shop for the most top-quality and expensive foods. Another name for it is feinkost, which means “fine food” or “Good Eats.” Take-out food is not sold in European counterparts.

You’re unlikely to find hot dogs at delis, but the story of how this favorite food got its name is pretty wild. Find out here. And the origin of the word “coffee,” (right here) is an adventure in itself.


  1. Jeevendra -  August 28, 2010 - 5:31 am

    @ Saf
    Man, that is simply awesome! Nobody could have put it like that. Actually I learned few new words from that as well… A nice round-house kick well delivered, to where it hurts the most… Awesome piece mon… Keep it up. I hope the know-it-all-i’m-always-right morons read your comment. Actually your comment deserves a place in blog since it got some nice words… Awesome mon!!!!

  2. Saf -  August 27, 2010 - 11:10 am

    Thanks, Bonisha. Maybe one day I’ll actually post something relevant to the blog!

  3. bonisha -  August 27, 2010 - 3:02 am

    have been following up on your comments since long..though have been a frequent commentgiver(lol) myself under different names…

    like the bit here..VERRRRY MUCH.


  4. Saf -  August 26, 2010 - 12:28 pm

    Dear G.,

    Thanks! I’m not sure what possessed me (probably a surfeit of caffeine), but I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  5. Kunturmarka -  August 26, 2010 - 11:50 am

    Once more, it is unforgivable that a website devoted to words and their origins makes a mistake in the name of an organism. First, the bacteria in question is Listeria monocytogenes (the article adds an extra “n”: “monoN…”). The scientific name should be written in italics or underlined. The name of the genus, in this case Listeria, is always capitalized.

    This organism was named in honour of the British surgeon and scientist Joseph Lister, the founder of antiseptic medicine. The “monocytogenes” refers to the fact that Listeria are invasive intracellular bacteria with a preference for monocytes and other white blood cells.

  6. G -  August 26, 2010 - 11:25 am

    Dear Saf:

    You just made my day! That is so funny. I needed the laugh. Thanks!


  7. Saf -  August 26, 2010 - 9:21 am


    August 26, 2010 — Yesterday, against a placid backdrop of faux-intellectualism, one commenter on Dictionary.com’s “The Hot Word” blog opted to escape the tedium of pointy-headed outrecuidance by pointing out the obvious grammatical shortcomings inherent in the system of truncated ‘Headline English’ made standard by news publishers for nearly two centuries. After proofreading his response for four-and-a-half hours to ensure that his own grammar was beyond reproach, our commenter straightened his ascot, drew a puff of smoke from his long-stemmed pipe, and clicked ‘Submit Comment.’ Moments later, serious-minded commenters everywhere were knitting their brows and nodding gravely in serious-minded concurrence. Although Dictionary.com has declined to comment on the possible repercussions of this issue, news publishers worldwide are scrambling to design a new, wider-format newspaper to accommodate the expected influx of CONTINUED ON PAGE 8E

  8. JanetJ2010 -  August 26, 2010 - 9:01 am

    Topic kind of choppy today; incoherent.

  9. Chris -  August 26, 2010 - 7:48 am

    I think the article meant more along the lines of fast-food staples, judging from the mention of hotdogs in the last paragraph (which, in the US, tend to be made from a vague list of mystery meats).

  10. Steve Ruis -  August 26, 2010 - 5:39 am

    I do believe that delicatessen has Latin roots but it came through the German where “essen” means “to eat” and “delikat” refers to something delicate, hence “delikatessen.” The German for “delicacies” is actually “Delikatesse” and for a “deli” is Delikatessengeschaft.”

  11. patrick -  August 26, 2010 - 5:37 am

    “It can also affect newborns because it has the capacity to penetrate the placenta.” — wow, it goes through the placenta to a newborn? That’s some seriously determined bacteria!!

  12. autumn breeze tonight -  August 26, 2010 - 5:03 am

    Can you make a cherry pie for me?

  13. oinky hater -  August 26, 2010 - 5:02 am

    I miss a cherry pie sold at the cafe in the Larry’s Market in the suburb of Seattle. They also have deli where their smoke salmon was sitting intact in the window case for a few weeks.

  14. bonisha -  August 26, 2010 - 4:40 am

    thanks for all that info!!:)


  15. Li -  August 26, 2010 - 3:34 am

    As an article on etymology this seems to be half finished. It’s interesting that it’s a Latin derivative from “delicauts” (is this even right? should it not be “delicatus”?) but where has the tail end of the word come from? Is it just a coincidence that, given it’s a German borrowing, “essen” means to eat in German? Would be nice to hear the author’s thoughts…

  16. Odette -  August 26, 2010 - 1:32 am

    It is very interesting that “deli” in Turkish means “mad” which reminded me of the “mad cow” disease. It has no linguistic affinity with “delicatessen” but when I first read here that “deli meat” caused illness, “mad cow” popped up in my head.

  17. ylm -  August 25, 2010 - 8:55 pm

    Mike, I think if the word potentially was left out of the sentence modifying the word lethal, it would then imply that all listerios cases were deadly. Just a thought.

  18. Seb -  August 25, 2010 - 8:21 pm

    I was really interested to read that delis are not places for fine food in the US. Here in Europe, as you say, they are definitely pretty upmarket places (lots of posh ham, cheeses, etc. from all over the world).
    However, it’s not true that they don’t sell food to take out. I have found quite a few that sell fancy sandwiches to eat in or take away (in Germany and also in Britain).

  19. Jaydub -  August 25, 2010 - 7:20 pm

    I wish a little more big and bold was placed across the IT CAN CROSS THE PLACENTA therefore it can be a very serious thing for pregnant women. Pregnant women: Please do not consume deli meats unless cooked to steaming hot to kill any possible bacteria, please don’t hurt your unborn over a sandwich!

  20. DELICATESSEN | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  August 25, 2010 - 2:25 pm

    [...] DELI! — Whatdya mean, no Hot Dogs, Kosher none the less. — Corned Beef on rye or TONGUE – Chopped Liver under no stress — Lysteria? Ain’t that some mouthwash? — Or is that luncheon meat — from China where Walmart stocks to compete — in a predatory fashion to Roll Back the USA — We love China and had a wonderful time — Capitalistic/Communism is zats an Oxymoronic rhyme?–>>Rupert L.T.Rhyme [...]

  21. Mark V -  August 25, 2010 - 2:20 pm

    odds are you’d just end up on the toilet for a week, in a small minority of cases you might get it spread to more vital systems.

    If you ate 1,000,000 bugs and 1 of them ended up killing you. Would you have to classify all bugs lethal?
    With your perception, you’d have to classify stepping outside the door every morning a Lethal. ^_^

  22. Rupert Wolfe Murray -  August 25, 2010 - 1:23 pm

    If you want another take on the word Delicatessen you should see the French film with that name. It’s wonderfully horrid and darkly humorous. And if you’re interested in food and how we got to this state you should read Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser, which is an absolutely brilliant account of America’s post WW2 economic history. It also has a calm and reflective tone, without being boring, and lacks any of the panic-fear-sensational tendencies of much journalism on this issue. But it does have a rather garish cover and a not very good film made in its name.

  23. Mike -  August 25, 2010 - 12:12 pm

    Is it neccesary to write “potentially lethal?”

    Doesn’t “lethal” imply potential death and need no such modifier?

    Just a thought.

  24. AJ -  August 25, 2010 - 12:10 pm

    Ya’ll need to get out a bit more.
    There are delis in the US selling top quality eats.
    See, for example – http://www.zingermans.com/

  25. Nathan -  August 25, 2010 - 12:07 pm

    Again, Hot Word, your title is missing an article.

    I love true delicatessens! There aren’t many of them up where I live, so it’s a real treat when I can visit a city with one in it.


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