“Oven” is an old word that has grown in use from a clay chamber to silly nonsense phrases in the modern world. Here’s why an oven is called an oven.
Ovens are called ovens because of the word’s origins as a description for a hollowed-out, hot cooking chamber. The word comes from a variety of languages, but is most influenced by Latin and Proto-Germanic roots.
You might be familiar with the popular copypasta based on a 2013 Tweet that reads “why do they call it oven when you of in the cold food of out hot eat the food?” This particularly silly nonsense phrase became popular when the internet picked it up in multiple edits – including a Garfield still that circulates around Tumblr to this day – but it rarely, if ever, gets an actual answer.
So, here’s why ovens are called ovens.
The Origins of the Word Oven
“Oven,” as we know it today, can be dated back to the use of the word “ofen” (sometimes spelled “ofn”) in Old English.
Its use can be traced to about the 12th century, where it most often described a clay chamber (either plain or tiled) used to replace the cooking functions of an open hearth or fireplace. Though these open fires were still used for heat, controlled chambers made cooking breads and meats significantly easier and more even.
These ovens would be filled with a small wood fire. When the fire burned down to embers, the remains of the fire would be cleaned out and the residual heat used to cook foot in clay pots. The opening would be sealed with either a wooden door or clay.
Clay ovens were most popular among higher classes who could afford more elaborate meals until around the 15th century when they became commonplace in most European households.
Old High German referred to similar chambers as “ovans,” while the Dutch may have been the first to use the modern spelling of “oven.” There’s also some evidence to suggest that the word is a modernization of the Sanskrit “ukhah” (“cooking pot”) and the Proto-Germanic “ukhnaz,” though how the word evolved is not clear.
Modern Uses of the Word Oven
Today, an oven is defined as a closed-in chamber used to cook food either by baking, heating, or drying.
They are typically electric or gas-powered rather than woodfire, though some woodfire ovens do still exist, and are typically 25 inches wide by 16 inches high by 16 inches deep. Confusingly, this standard-dimension oven is labeled as a 30-inch oven. They are also available in 27-inch, 24-inch, and 20-inch varieties.
“Oven” can also refer to a microwave or certain kinds of toasters, which are generally small countertop or installed appliances. A microwave oven is different from a standard oven in that it uses microwave radiation rather than direct convection to heat food; they are also typically smaller.
A toaster oven (as opposed to a traditional toaster) is essentially a miniature oven and is usually dial-controlled so that it can be set to specific heat levels and times to cook food.
Pizza and Dutch Ovens
The word can also be applied to specific kinds of ovens. Closest to the original version would be pizza ovens, which are typically dome-shaped with an open front or set of semicircular doors. They are made of brick or clay and contain an open fire that heats a stone platform onto which the pizza is placed and periodically moved for even cooking.
Oddly enough, a Dutch oven is not a large chamber, but a heavy-duty ceramic or cast-iron pot with a large, heavy lid. These pots essentially create a very small cooking chamber within another cooking chamber, stovetop, or on an open fire. They’re typically used to brown meats and cook vegetables before allowing them to simmer for long periods of time.
As an interesting side note, a French oven is a Dutch oven that has been coated in ceramic for ease of cleaning and maintenance. However, these have become so synonymous with the Dutch oven that they’re often sold under that name.
Other Uses of the Word Oven
“Oven-proof” or “oven-safe” items are made to be used in an oven. This typically means that they are certified not to crack, break, or warp under high-heat conditions up to a certain temperature. Most aluminum sheet trays and pans, as well as many ceramics and all cast-iron cookware, are considered oven safe.
An oven-bird, whose name was coined in 1825, is a subset of species that build arched ovens that resemble traditional ovens. They are small brown songbirds with white bellies and distinctive black spots and striping along their chests and typically live in the Eastern half of North America and Central America. They were the subject of Robert Frost’s 1916 poem, which celebrates their very loud song.
Another common use of the word is in the phrase “having a bun in the oven,” which typically means that a woman is pregnant. Its use is an oblique reference to the fact that the dough of a bun will expand and seem to grow in an oven’s heat, in the same way, that a child grows in its mother’s womb.
The phrase is purported to have originated from a 1951 novel by Nicholas Monserrate called Cruel Sea, in which it is used to convey the idea that a character’s relations may have produced a child. Today, it is used as an affectionate or somewhat joking reference to pregnancy and can be found in newspaper headlines, cards, and other merchandise.
The word “oven” has been a part of the English language since before its modernization. This makes sense, as it does describe a vital part of life – the preparation of food. Its modernization, from clay chambers to electrical appliances to slang and even memes, shows its relevance to modern speech.
Ovens are a big part of many cultures; different people have specific ovens used for traditional recipes or have fond memories of family events based around food fresh from the oven. Though the question may not have been asked seriously, it is still interesting to learn about the origins of this most influential and historied word.