Learn English – Recipe vs Receipt


I have noticed that some older cookbooks use the term 'receipt' in place of 'recipe'. Why did this change occur?

I tried looking up usage of both recipe and receipt using Google Books' NGram viewer, but I'm afraid I got a lot of false positives on 'receipt' because that word is used in so many other non-food-related contexts.

That said, for the word 'recipe' there was a sharp incline after about 1967, and a corresponding (although less dramatic) decrease in the use of the word 'receipt'.

I believe both words must have been in common usage in about 1950, at least where I live in the southern United States, because I have two cookbooks dated to around then which are both collections of recipes local to where each of my grandmothers lived, "Charleston Receipts" and "River Road Recipes".

I'm curious if any of you know more about these two words and why the sudden preference of one over the other.

Best Answer

The OED attests to this sense of receipt:

  1. A formula or preparation made according to a formula. Now generally superseded in this branch by RECIPE n. 12.
  2. gen. The formula of a preparation, or an account of the means, for bringing about some end; (in extended use) the means for attaining an end. Cf. RECIPE n. 3. Now arch.
  3. A statement of the ingredients and procedure required for making a dish or an item of food or drink; = RECIPE n. 2. Also in extended use. Now hist.


receipt book n. (a) a book containing medical or cooking receipts (also fig.) (cf. recipe book n. at RECIPE n. Compounds); (b) a book containing receipts for payments made.

This apparently originated in medicine and alchemy, from the Latin recipere via Anglo-Norman recepte and receit and so forth, in the sense of what today we would call a prescription— a list of the curative items a patient was to receive.

For example, in Chaucer (Yeoman's Tale):

… and whan that this preest shoolde
Maken assay, at swich tyme as he wolde,
Of this receit, farwel! It wolde nat be.

There are examples from the twentieth century. Gore Vidal's Screening History (1992) has the line

an inability to recognize and accommodate that same interest in others is a receipt for chaos.

and in the Independent on Sunday of 7 November 1993,

Jennifer Paterson prefers ‘receipt’ to ‘recipe’. It was current in her youth, she says, ‘in the days before the war, when people spoke English’.

But it does seem to have persisted in the food and drink sense, dialectically in the Southern U.S. An article by Heather Richie on Southern Living magazine's website, entitled "Keeping Receipts: The New Life of Old Cookbooks," notes that the Charleston Receipts cookbook, published since 1950 by the Junior League, opens with this poem:

We never mention recipe,
— The reason being that we felt,
(Though well aware how it is spelt!),
That it is modern and not meet
To use in place of old receipt
To designate time-honored dishes
According to ancestral wishes.

The reasons as to why the one form became preferred to another are probably impossible to know, any more than why any other word gains currency.

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