Grind with a Pestle against a Mortar
I was grinding fennel for our Christmas roast, and my daughter asked the age-old question: Which is the mortar and which is the pestle?
I can never remember, and I’m not sure why I can never remember. I think it might have something to do with which comes first. You grind the pestle against the mortar. But when I say it, the mortar comes first: mortar and pestle.
The Oxford English Dictionary suggest the combination pestle and mortar, although it has examples of both. Curiously, the combination seems to have been more frequently pestle and mortar in the Google Books corpus until the turn of the 20th century. It reversed, causing me confusion. A Google search yields plenty of pestle and mortar combinations, but many more mortar and pestles.
Pestle is related to the word piston, the machine consisting of a disk that moves within a tube and drives an internal combustion engine. Both come from a Latin word that means to pound. Pesto, made with crushed herbs, is also related.
The word mortar is a bowl for grinding, and that shape gives us the word mortar to mean a type of gun used to fire shells. The Associated Press Stylebook reminds us that a mortar is a “device used to launch a mortar shell; it is the shell, not the mortar that is fired.”
Mortar is also used to hold bricks or stones together. It’s a mixture of lime, sand, and water. The etymology is probably simple: the cement mixture was mixed in a mortar, and the container gave its name to the substance. Maybe. Eventually, the substance gave its name to the square, flat board with a handle used by bricklayers. And that gave its name to the mortar board worn by students when they graduate.
As a mortar board holds a bricklayer’s mortar or a battlefield mortar holds various projectiles, the mortar in a kitchen holds the freshly ground fennel for the Christmas roast.