As I work my way through translating the recipes of Forme of Cury, Richard II’s official cookery book, I sometimes come across words that have shifted in meaning from how they were originally used. In this first of a series of ‘Language of cookery’ notes, I take a look at one of these words: smiten.
The Middle English verb smiten, literally ‘to smite’, has numerous meanings, primarily associated with inflicting blows or striking with a weapon, but also afflicting with death or suffering. [see note 1]
Our modern, though often archaic, use of the derivative verb smite still carries some of these associations: we might smite our enemies, for example, or our family may be smitten with the flu.
In a culinary context, however, smiten essentially means ‘to cut up’, as you can see with these examples from Forme of Cury:
smyte hit on smale morcels ‘smite it into small morcels’: from the recipe for Roo broth (re. boar or roe deer meat), image above.
smyte hit to gobettes ‘smite it into gobbets’: from Mounchelet (re. veal or mutton)
smyte hem on pecys rawe ‘smite them raw into pieces’: from Egredouce (re. rabbits or kid)
smyte hem onto pecys ‘smite them into pieces’: from Conynges in grauey (re. rabbits)
tak oynouns perboyle hem, smyte hem smal ‘take onions, parboil them, smite them small’: from Hares in talbotes
The intriguing thing is that Middle English smiten derives from Old English smitan, which does not carry any of the senses above but, rather, means ‘to daub, smear, soil, pollute or defile’. [see note 2]
So, I imagine, someone in pre-Conquest England would have looked rather bemused if they were told to smear their onions or defile their rabbits!
 Middle English (ME) is the name we give to the English language from the period, roughly, 1175-1500. For a comprehensive definition of ME smiten, see the Middle English Dictionary online.
 Old English (OE) is the name we give to the English language from the period, roughly 600-1175. The definition here for OE smitan is from A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary by J. R. Clark Hall. We should note that there are a small number of examples of where the original OE sense survives in the Middle English period: see note 1, above; follow the dictionary link, no. 11.