This term for food is a clipping of the older chow-chow, a Chinese-English pidgin word of unknown origin meaning food or, in particular, a mixture or medley of foodstuffs.
Chow-chow first appears in 1795, in Aeneas Anderson’s A Narrative of British Embassy to China:
Chow-chow...victuals or meat.
In 1857, the Viscountess Falkland, wife of the governor of Bombay, published a journal of her stay in India titled Chow-Chow. The following January, the Bombay Quarterly Review summed up the use of the term nicely in a review of her book:
The word chow-chow is suggestive, especially to the Indian reader, of a mixture of things, “good, bad, and indifferent,” of sweet little oranges and bits of bamboo stick, slices of sugar-cane and rinds of unripe fruit, all concocted together, and made upon the whole into a very tolerable confection…
Lady Falkland, by her happy selection of a name, to a certain extent deprecates and disarms criticism. We cannot complain that her work is without plan, unconnected, and sometimes trashy, for these are exactly the conditions implied in the word chow-chow.
By 1886 it was being clipped to simply chow.
The name of the breed of dog appears as early as 1886 and is probably unrelated to the word for food. The name of the dog comes from the Chinese word for dog, kou (or gou in Pinyin). While apparently unrelated to the word for food, there is the possibility that the word for food comes from the mistaken belief that the Chinese used them as a source of meat, much like our hot dog gets its name from the jocular belief that sausages contained dog meat.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton