Some days ago I overheard a conversation that really made me think about the origin of the word “meatball”. The conversation -or rather the argument– was about whether or not a meatball had to contain meat necessarily. Everything started when one of the participants of the discussion who was a vegan said that you can prepare vegan meatballs using tofu instead of meat, and another participant said that if it did not contain meat, it could not be called “meatball”. The conversation was in Spanish, so they were talking about “albóndigas”, which is the Spanish word for meatballs. They spent a long time arguing about this topic, and all I could think about was that in English the word implies that we are talking about “balls” of “meat”, so probably you should not call meatball a ball of tofu. But the Spanish word does not imply (at least at first sight) that you need meat to cook an “albóndiga”. So I decided to look for the etymology of the word and to compare if in other languages a meatball has to contain meat because the actual word implies the concept.
As we already know, in English we say “meatball”, which literally means “ball of meat”. However, the Spanish word is “albóndiga”, and as many other Spanish words starting with “al-” comes from Arabic. This is because the Arabs stayed in the South of Spain during almost 800 years and therefore, it is natural that some traces of their language have been assimilated into Spanish. “Al” was the definite article “the”, so many words in Spanish that start with “al-” come from when the Arabs used to call something using the article first, and the Spaniards made a noun putting together the Arabic article and noun. This is the case of the word “albóndiga”. “Búnduqa” was the Arabic word for “ball”, so they used to call meatballs “al-búnduqa” (the ball), and this was how we ended up saying “albóndiga” as a noun. As we can see, this Spanish word has no references to meat, it just means that the form of this product is that of a ball, so even if Arabs used to cook balls of meat, meat is not present in the etymology of the word. Thus, it would be logical to call “albóndiga” to a ball of tofu when speaking Spanish, because meat is not implicit in this term.
But, what about other languages?
In German, meatballs are called “Fleischklößchen” which also means “balls of meat”, so they do imply the use of meat in them.
The same happens with the French name, which is “boulette de viande” and means, again, “balls of meat”. Other languages where we find the same meaning are: Dutch (“gehaktbal”), Finnish (“lihapulla”), and Swedish (“köttbulle”).
In Norwegian they call them “kjøttkake” which means “cake of meat”.
But in some other languages, as in Spanish, the terms used do not imply the use of meat. For example, in Polish meatballs are called “klops”, which apparently has nothing to do with the word for meat “mięso”. In Italian they say “polpetta”, and it is unclear whether it comes from the French word “paupière” (eyelid), or from “pulp”. The most interesting word for “meatball” that I found was the Cebuano “bolabola”. “Bola” means “ball” in Spanish, and Cebuano is spoken in the Philippines, where the Spanish language has a big influence. Therefore, it seems obvious that “bolabola” means “ballball”, comes from Spanish, and does not imply the presence of meat.
As a conclusion, the words for “meatball” imply the presence of meat in several languages, but in others they do not. The argument that I overheard could have been easily finished by using etymology, and the answer would be:
It depends on which language we are talking about, it is legitimate to call “albóndiga” a meatball made of tofu, but we cannot call it “köttbulle”, for example.
This is what I found in my little research about meatballs and languages, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did enjoy comparing these languages.