A number of Vietnamese restaurants in the US are called “What the pho?”, a wordplay on the traditional Vietnamese dish pho (spelled phở in Vietnamese), which is actually pronounced like fun and not like phone.
But really, what’s the pho?
As this blog is linguistic, I am not going to address the recipe of this delicious Vietnamese noodle soup, but rather the etymology of its name, which is very controversial.
For more Western sources, the origin of the word phở comes directly from French and its colonization of Vietnam. French settlers brought with them pot-au-feu, a traditional French meat and vegetable soup. The food argument is that both soups use a beef broth, bone marrow and star anise (but there is no noodle in pot-au-feu). The linguistic argument is that feu sounds pretty much like phở. However, the tone of the “ở” in phở is high (open), whereas the “eu” sound in feu is usually low (close), although in Southern France, feu sounds almost the same as phở.
Some other sources indicate the Vietnamese derivation ngưu nhục phấn of the Cantonese word 牛肉粉 as the origin. On the food side, this Chinese dish uses noodles and cow meat, but no star anise. On the linguistic side, the sounds seem pretty far apart, but this explanation seems validated by a French novel from 1919, which spells “Yoc feu!” the cry of food merchants in the street, which would be another deformation of nhục phấn.
In any case, scholars both in Vietnam and outside still argue the etymology, so it seems that the origin of the Vietnamese national dish will remain at best a controversy, and at worst a mystery!
Could it be that pho got both its recipe and its name by a coincidental mixture of Cantonese and French sounds and recipes?