‘Ketchup’ or ‘Catsup’?

Have you seen the tomato sauce spelled two different ways? We have the scoop on which spelling is better.

Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read
Episode #822
The Quick And Dirty

"Ketchup" is the older spelling and is also the better choice today.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the current ketchup shortage, and that reminded me that people sometimes wonder about the two spellings of the word “ketchup.”

'Ketchup' is the more common spelling

Although both spellings are correct, “ketchup” is far and away the most common spelling. Some dictionaries do list “catsup” as a variant, but the Oxford English Dictionary says the variant spelling is largely American and arose a bit later than “ketchup,” which came first. 

The AP Stylebook specifically recommends “ketchup,” and a search of word usage in Google Books, shows the “ketchup” spelling vastly outpacing “catsup” in both American and British English. Further, I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that Heinz, the main provider of ketchup in both countries, also spells it “ketchup.” The spelling on all those bottles and packets seeps into our minds like ketchup into a dry bun.

A Google Ngram chart showing that ketchup is more common than catsup

The history of the sauce in general surprised me though! It wasn’t always a tomato sauce.

Ketchup was originally a fish sauce

The original ketchup was probably a Chinese fish sauce called “kê-chiap” that British travelers enjoyed while traveling in the East in the 1600s. 

After returning home, they tried to imitate the sauce and also gave it an English version of the name that came as close as they could approximate, and then, eventually, in the 1700s and 1800s, “ketchup” came to be a word for many different kinds of sauces. 

Later, ketchup was the name for multiple sauces

People made walnut ketchup, oyster ketchup, and mushroom ketchup, which you can actually still buy today from a British company called Geo Watkins that was established in 1830, during this time of ketchup sauce variety. The company says its ketchup was “the secret of success for many Victorian cooks when making steak and kidney pies, puddings, roast meats, sauces, and soups.” And if you look hard enough on the internet, you can also find banana ketchup and beet ketchup.

Like 'ketchup,' 'mango' used to have a wider meaning too

The story actually reminds me of mangoes, which I talked about back in 2019, because mangoes seems to have been a term more generally used for fruits that were pickled before it came to refer to just one kind of fruit like it does today. For example, cookbooks from the late 1800s and early 1900s have recipes for pepper mangoes, melon mangoes, and peach mangoes, which are pickled versions of those fruits.

Today, 'ketchup' is a tomato sauce (mostly)

But just like the meaning of “mango” became more limited, the meaning of “ketchup” has largely become limited too. Today, tomato ketchup rules. If you just say “ketchup,” people know you mean the tomato flavor. According to Etymonline, it started around 1800 when tomato ketchup emerged in the United States, and by the early 1900s, it was the main kind of ketchup here. 

The Quick and Dirty Tip is that you should spell “ketchup” K-E-T-C-H-U-P, but if you feel like being an adventurous cook, you can pick up some mushroom ketchup and try to recreate some Victorian recipes.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.