Q&A: Yogurt or yoghurt? Hummus or houmous?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're double dipping…

Q: Hi AWC. I need your advice on food.

A: Well, if the mould has started growing its own mould, then it’s definitely time to chuck it out.

Q: No, not that. It’s how to spell “yogurt” – or is it “yoghurt”? It always confuses me.

A: Well, you’re not alone in your confusion – it seems the dollopy stuff is perplexing for many.

Q: So which is the correct answer?

A: Both.

Q: Ugh, English!

A: Yeah, it really depends on where you live. The original word is Turkish – “yoğurt” – from a word meaning to thicken or knead. The breve above the “g” rendered it silent, but English didn’t get that memo – and the word arrived around 1620 with a few options.

Q: Such as?

A: The use of “gh” for that Turkish sound was big at the time, thus “yoghurt”. But the direct translation of the letters also proved popular, giving us “yogurt”. Other variations included “yoghurd” and “yoghourt” and it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the current ‘flavours’ were established.

Q: Which are what?

A: The US – known for its dislike of silent letters – almost exclusively uses “yogurt”, while Britain favours “yoghurt”. 

Q: And other places?

A: While Britain has started using “yogurt” a lot more, others like New Zealand, Australia and South Africa remain staunch “yoghurt” supporters. Canada meanwhile goes with “yogurt” but also the curious “yogourt” due to its French side.

Q: So in Australia, go with “yoghurt”?

A: Yes. Although, thanks to many American brands, you’ll see “yogurt” around a lot too – and technically it’s not wrong.

Q: Okay, can we grab a bowl of something else now?

A: Sure.

Q: Is it “hummus” or “houmous” or “hommus” or… well, you get the gist.

A: Ah yes! Another common discussion topic. 

Q: I checked the supermarket shelves and that just confused me more.

A: Yes, well welcome to the global marketplace! 

Q: Do we have an origin story?

A: Of course. The word comes from Arabic – short for the term “࣭hummu࣭s bi ࣭ta࣭hina” – literally meaning “chickpeas with tahini”. And this time, there is a clear global preferred spelling – “hummus”… turning up in English in the 1950s.

Q: So why all the fuss?

A: Because due to regional dialects, there are a LOT of variants – of which “houmous” is most popular in Britain. However, here in Australia, Macquarie Dictionary doesn’t even list that one, instead opting for “hoummos”, “hoummus”, “hommus” or “hommos” as alternatives to its main “hummus” entry.

Q: There’s nothing humorous about any of them. But it’s still the same delicious stuff wherever you go, right?

A: Just like the spelling, it’s a matter of taste – but yes, it’s the same ingredients!

Q: What does America use?

A: As usual, they’re more decisive – almost exclusively opting for “hummus”.

Q: Would you say the safest bet is to spell it “hummus”?

A: Yes, we would! It’s the most common worldwide and most closely linked to the original. Just be aware of alternative spellings – they’re not wrong either.

Q: One final thing – what’s the correct pronunciation?

A: Ohhh, another controversial topic. Some say it “HUM-miss” while others go with “WHO-miss”. It’s a bit like “YO-git” and “YOG-it” – simply a matter of taste!

Q: Thanks for spoon feeding me this knowledge.

A: Happy to dip into it…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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