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Forklore: Sherbetology

July 15, 2012 |  9:00 am

Forklore sigSherbet, sorbet -- what's the difference? None, really -- at least in most of the world. The first came to English direct from the Turkish word serbet, the second by way of Naples, where it had gotten confused with the idea of ab-sorb-ing, because it was something you drank.

That's right, sherbets and sorbets were originally drinks made from sweetened fruit juice, not frozen desserts, though they were often cooled with ice or snow. They were a potent symbol of luxury. Everyone knew that at the sultans' in Istanbul, the servants never poured water but only sherbet.

Sherbet was a recently coined word in 16th century Turkey. It replaced the original word for a sweet drink, sharab , because that word had developed unacceptable connotations -- people had been using it as a euphemism for wine, which is forbidden to Muslims. By that time, sharab had already made its way to Europe, giving us our word syrup, the old-fashioned punch known as shrub and (by way of Dutch) the strap in blackstrap molasses.

Now you know why, if a Turk describes you as having "sherbet in your veins," it means, "You have a delightful personality," not "You have ice in your veins."

In the United States, while sorbet (like sherbet elsewhere) is a frozen fruit juice confection, for many decades American sherbet has been a sort of ice milk, a less rich but still dairy-based cousin of ice cream.

-- Charles Perry

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