The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #14 March / April 2015
Words in Your Mouth
by Erik Zidowecki
March / April 2015 | 

The etymology of rice is rather clear, but its origins are a little grainy.

The Britannica definition of rice is "an edible starchy cereal grain and the annual grass that produces it." Its scientific name is oryza sativa, family Poaceae, or Gramineae. However, I am sure that neither explanation is needed for this seemingly globally eaten food. I am equally sure that most if not all our readers have had rice at some point in their lives, either as a separate side dish or as part of another dish.

A bowl of fried rice, pickles, and shallots (a type of onion)

Approximately one-half of the world's population, including practically all of East and Southeast Asia, has rice as its primary staple-food. It was first cultivated in India over four thousand years ago. It is grown in flooded fields, called "paddies", along rivers of tropical and temperate regions. It grows to a height of 4 feet (1.2 m), and has long, flattened leaves. From these plants, brown and white rice is harvested, depending on which part of the plant it is taken.

Because of its ancient origins, the etymology is fairly standard. The Latin word for rice is "oryza" or "oriza", which comes come from the Greek "όρυζα". From these, many other language families have gotten their basis for "rice".

Among the Italic languages, we have Catalan (arròs), French (riz), and Italian (riso).

The Slavic languages are also very similar, with Polish (ryż), Russian (рис [ris]), and Bulgarian (ориз [oriz]).

Then Germanic languages, along with the English "rice", have Dutch (rijst), German (Reis), and Yiddish (רײַז [rayz]).

A dish of sushi (raw fish and rice wrapped together) and sashimi, (a delicacy consisting of very fresh raw fish sliced into thin pieces) in a Japanese restaurant

Even the Celtic languages fall in with this heritage with the Irish (rís), the Welsh (reis), and others.

However, this is only the way in which the word found its way into the "western" regions. It can be traced back even further into the Arabic رز [ruzz]. From here, some languages, like Spanish (arroz) and Portuguese (arroz) seemed to have adopted it directly from the Arabic, even including the article (ألرز = "ar-ruzz").

Going even further back, we can find its roots in the Sanskrit word "vrihi-s". Yet, this historically refers to wheat, barley, and rice. In India, the word for rice, "arici", which came from Malaysia, is used in many languages of the region. It is not yet understood why some regions adopted one word over the other, but it is speculated the the reason is closely related to which cultures adopted wheat as a staple, instead of rice.


Paella, a traditional dish of Spain, containing shrimp, fish and rice

While there are many foods that incorporate rice, such as Pilau, Paëlla Valenciana, and Risotto, I cannot think of many ways in which references to rice have entered into English slang. Since it isn't viewed as much as a staple in Western countries as it is in the East, it has also not affected our views and ideas as much.

There is one slang idiom in English, "like white on rice", which means "very closely". It would be used like "She was so afraid, she stuck to him like white on rice".

Perhaps unsurprising, we do have idioms involving rice coming from Asian countries, where rice is a primary staple of the diet.

Tiered rice fields in Yen Bai, Vietnam

The first comes from Japanese: 冷や飯を食う (ひやめしをくう) (hiyameshi o kuu) which is translated as "eating cold rice". This can mean someone who is less fortunate or someone who has done something stupid and now has to deal with the consequences of their actions. The second usage is similar to the English "in the doghouse".

The other idiom comes from Chinese: 生米煮成熟饭 (shēng mǐ zhǔ chéng shú fàn) which means "the rice is cooked". The meaning behind it is "what is done cannot be undone", or that it is too late to change things, like when rice is cooked, you can't uncook it.

Perhaps someone could let me know of ways rice has entered into their own language's idioms or ideas.


The linguistic references in ancient texts have been used to try to pinpoint the very first cultivation of rice. In several regional languages, the word for rice and food, or for rice and agriculture, are synonymous. But this is not the case in other parts of the world. Looking at religious writings, many references are made to rice in both Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, and both religions use rice as a major offering to the gods. However, in Jewish scriptures, there are no corresponding early references to rice. Nor are there any references in early Egyptian records.


The actual origins of rice has been debated for a long time, but the rice plant is so old historically that the exact time and place of its first true cultivation may never be known. It is certain, though, that the domestication of rice is one of the most important developments in history, for it has fed more people over a long period of time than has any other crop, and will continue to do so in the future.

Other pictures related to rice
From top-left, clockwise: Indonesian meal of grilled chicken, white rice, and cucumbers; A worker sprays herbicides and pesticides on a rice field in Surname; Rice being cooked in an electric rice cooker; Cans of traditional rice wine, called sake, stacked in Itsukushima Japan; Bags of organic rice on sale in a market in Thailand; Mexican dish of rice, tacos, beans, and salsa

"Rice" in many languages
Afrikaans: rys
Dutch: rijst
English: rice
Flemish: rijst
Frisian: rys
German: Reis
Limburgian: ries
Luxembourgish: Räis
Swiss German: Riis
Yiddish: רײַז [rayz]
Dalecarlian: rís(-grjón) [rai:s(-griuo:n)]
Danish: ris [ri:s]
Faroese: rís(grýn) [rUi:s(grUin]
Gutnish: rís(-griaun) [räi:s(-grau:n)]
Icelandic: hrísgrjón
Jamtlandic: rís(-grjœn) [ri:s(-grö:n)]
Norwegian: ris
Swedish: ris / risgryn
Czech: rýže
Polish: ryż
Slovak: ryža
Byelorussian: рыс [rys]
Russian: рис [ris]
Ukrainian: рис [ris]
Bulgarian: ориз [oriz]
Croatian: riža / pirinač
Macedonian: ориз [oriz]
Serbian: пиринач [pirinač]
Slovenian: riž
Asturian: arroz
Caló: corpiche / arcopichó
Catalan: arròs
French: riz
Galician: arroz
Italian: riso
Judeo-Spanish: arros
Ladino: rije
Latin: Oryza sativa / oryza
Neapolitan: riso
Occitan: ris
Portuguese: arroz
Romanian: orez
Romansh: ris
Spanish: arroz
Valencian: arros
Wallon: riz
Bergamasco: ris
Bolognese: rîs
Bresciano: rís
Calabrese: risu
Friulian: rîs
Leonese: arroz
Lingala: loso
Lombardo Occidentale: ris
Mantuan: ris
Mudnés: ris
Parmigiano: ris
Piemontese: ris
Reggiano: ris
Romagnolo: rìs
Sardinian (Limba Sarda Unificada): rosu
Sardinian Campidanesu: arrosu / arrisu
Sardinian Logudoresu: rosu
Triestino: risi
Venetian: riso
Viestano: ris'
Zeneize: riso
Irish: rís
Breton: riz
Cornish: rys
Manx: reise
Welsh: reis
Albanian: oriz
Greek: ρύζι [rízi]
Old Greek: γέλως [gélōs] / όρυζα [óryza]
Hindi: चावल
Kurdish Kurmanji: birinc / riz
Kurdish Sorani: برنج
Persian: برنج [berenj]
Sanskrit: ताणडुल [tāṇaḍula]
Bengali; Bangla: ভাত
Gujarati: ચોખા
Konkani: भात
Marathi: भात
Punjabi: ਚਾਵਲ
Korean: 쌀 [ssal] (raw) / 밥 [bap], 쌀밥 [ssalbap] (cooked)
Mongolian: тутрага [tutraga] / цагаан будаа [tsagaan budaa]
Azeri (Latin Script): düyü
Turkish: pirinç
Basque: arroz / irris
Japanese: 米 [kome] / 稲 [ine] (plant) / 飯 [han], ご飯 [gohan] (cooked)
Estonian: riis
Finnish: riisi
Hungarian: rizs
Saami: risenat
Chechen: duga
Indonesian: padi (seed), beras (harvested, uncooked), nasi (cooked)
Malagasy: vary
Malay: padi / beras / nasi
Tagalog: palay / bigas / kanin
Māori: raihi
Samoan: alaisa
Hawai`ian: laiki
Tagalog: palay
Arabic: رُزّ [ruzz]
Hebrew: אורז [orez]
Chinese (simplified/traditional): 米/米 [mi3], "cooked rice": 饭/飯 [fan4]
Thai: ข้าว [khao]
Blackfoot: issssiinainikimm
Cheyenne: he'éhesono
Ojibwe: manoomin|an (WO) / waabanoomin|ag (NO)
Gbari: cewyi
Shona: mupunga
Swahili: mchele
Wollof: ceeb
Zulu: ilayisi
Quechua: arrus
Guarani: aro
Maasai: emuhele
Mokshan: ris
Haitian Creole: diri
Papiamentu: aros
Tok Pisin: rais
Vietnamese: cơm
Canis: riso
Esperanto: rizo
Interlingua: ris
Lingua Franca Nova: ris

Words in Your Mouth - Rice
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Petey: Glass of milk; Young sheep; Dairy farm; Shelves of milk; Cup of coffee; Kitten drinking milk; Drop of milk splashing; Slices of cheese; Ice-cream; Bars of milk chocolate

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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