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Words in the news: hummus

Britain has been plunged into chaos by a shortage of an essential foodstuff. Frantic shoppers thronged the aisles of supermarkets across the land, battling for the last precious tubs of hummus, while long queues formed outside shops rumoured to still have supplies of the beloved chickpea dip.

I’m kidding, of course, but you might not know that if you follow social media, where news that two major supermarkets had pulled supplies from their shops due to ‘production issues’ led to cries of anguish, as well as a great deal of good-natured mockery of those for whom hummus is a staple food (generally seen as liberal lefty types who shun red meat).

The savoury Middle-Eastern dip is undeniably popular. Despite the fact that it’s dead easy (and cheap) to make yourself, Brits consume around 12,000 tonnes of the supermarket versions a year, with the basic chickpea paste having been supplemented by all kinds of exotic variations.

Shoppers were relieved to learn that supplies will soon return to the shelves, leaving us with just one question. What is the correct spelling? This being a relatively recent foreign borrowing (from Arabic) spellings abound. Macmillan Dictionary gives the standard spelling, hummus, which is borne out by corpus frequencies: hummus is overwhelmingly the most frequent, occurring almost 25,000 times, or  1.1 times per million words, with closest rival houmous lagging way behind on the low hundreds and other versions in the low dozens.

Finally, don’t ever confuse hummus with humus, otherwise you might find yourself dipping your pitta bread into a dish of dirt.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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