WOTD: Băcănie

If you want to know what life is like in my house, consider that my wife and I spent half an hour debating the sign you see above. I took that photograph here in Chisinau because I was delighted to see a very old Romanian word that I hadn’t seen in years. Alas, even the sign you see will be gone soon as that shop is now out of business.

The word we were debating the meaning of is băcănie (buck-a-knee-uh). My wife was saying that a băcănie is a corner shop that sells food while I countered that the sign clearly indicated otherwise (the big red word says "Food store/shop" while underneath it says bread, dairy products, băcănie and drinks). DEX reveals that băcănie can also refer to spices or herbs that are added to foods.

So which is it? Is băcănie a small shop selling food or is it spices and herbs? And why did I have yet a third definition?

The answer lies with understanding the root word, which is băcan (bu-khan), which translates as “A trader that sells various food products”. That’s a Romanian adoption of a Turkish word bakkal which means either “grocer” if you’re American or “greengrocer” if you’re British. Understanding Romanian grammatical syntax, băcănie means “of or relating to” a băcăn.

To unravel this mystery, it’s important to understand what life was like until modern times. Most people lived in rural settings, growing the vast majority of the food that they ate. But sometimes traders would come through with little food odds and ends that couldn’t be sourced locally. These might be spices OR they might be various exotic food items like tropical fruits.

As people began to move into cities, some formerly mobile food traders set up shops to sell food (as opposed to the market, which still exists today in Romania and Moldova). Keeping the same name (băcănie), people recognized that this was a place where you could find foodstuffs that traders used to bring to the village.

Fast forward to the Communist era, and most urban centers that sold (or distributed) food were often dedicated to a single product like bread or milk. The place to get “non-essential” or unusual items was the băcănie. And then when more diverse food shops began to exist (now called alimentara) they’d either be called a băcănie or else advertise that they sold băcănie (spices and herbs) alongside the staples (bread, milk, and drinks, as in the sign above).

So why did this word largely disappear from post-Communist Romania and Moldova? The answer is two-fold. First, a combination of hypermarket (“superstore” in USA English) and the term alimentara became more widespread. But secondly, an English word started to gain a lot of currency: snacks.

One of those unusual English words that seem “obvious” once you get used to using it, a “snack” is simply a term for a small portion of some kind of food, often foods that are portable, quick to eat (or prepare) and that come in an infinite variety. Romanian started using different words for herbs and spices (mirodeni) while the small, quick, and unusual food products sold in corner shops became known as snacks-uri (“snacks” is singular in Romanian).

It’s up for debate but to my mind it’s pretty clear that the sign above is saying that they have bread, dairy products, snacks and drinks when they were using the word băcănie.

And now you know how a a perfectly good word like băcănie lost its competitive edge and is now on its way to becoming an archaic word!

Note – if you’re thinking that the Turkish word “bakkal” sounds a lot like the family name Bacall, as in Lauren Bacall, you might be interested in learning that both of her parents were from areas of Eastern Europe formerly under the dominion of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, her mom from Romania and her dad from Belarus/Poland. It’s likely that somewhere in the far past, one of her ancestors was indeed a “bakkal”.

Note #2 – Not anywhere that I’ve seen in Chisinau but in some places in Moldova they say “bacal” and “bacalie”, clearly much closer to the original Turkish.

So… are you hungry yet? :P

4 thoughts on “WOTD: Băcănie

  1. Mirodenii has 2 I’s. (Singular is mirodenie). In almost every post on the Romanian language, you make a mistake or two, but just droppingyou a little note; feel free to delete this comment. (It’s constructive criticism).


  2. Hey Sam, luckily “nu te-ai facut de bacanie” ;-)

    Nice topic and research. It is the vintage Romanian word and function probably similar to the General Store in the Amurican westerns.

    I still remember the one in the village my parents were from, on the Ialomita valley, under the Bucegi mountain range, when as a child my aunt used to send me for all kind of things. They carried everything from flour and cooking oil to ice and jelly beans, canned food, household items, dry bulk, etc. It was a world of wonders to me, that’s for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. oops almost forgot… regarding my opening remark:
      it was also, obviously, the place of gossip, “de barfe” -here’s another WOTD for you – amongst the locals who shared their unsolicited opinions and “zvonuri” (another one) about the locals and the rest of the world, in a Coronation-style rumor mill.

      hence the expression “a se face de bacanie” – to become the subject of the gossip or public contempt or ridicule (based on their dubious righteous views ) that transpired at the bacanie.

      and now you know! ;-)


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