I’ll start with what I wrote a while back on the mistake broccoli rabbi for broccoli rabe or broccoli raab:
Though I suspect that rabbi is some ordinary kind of error, Ned Deily has suggested to me that it might spring from a dialect form in German — maybe rabi [ra:bi] or even rabbi [rabi] — meaning ‘turnip’ (broccoli rabe and turnips are both in Brassica rapa subspecies rapa — the brassicas are something of a taxonomic morass). After all, there’s kohlrabi.
But kohlrabi, the OED tells us, goes back to Italian cavoli rape, which is the plural of cavolo rapa ‘cole-rape’, with its first element altered through the influence of German Kohl ‘cabbage’ (yet another brassica) — an element clearly visible in modern English cole slaw (made from cabbage) and more distantly discernible in cauliflower (another brassica) and kale (of several types — still more brassicas). (No, the -col- piece in broccoli is not an occurrence of this element. Broccoli is a diminutive of brocco ‘shoot, stalk’.)
(I then entertained the possibility of various Italian dialect forms as the source of the error.)
OED2 has a long and complex etymology for cole, but the short story is that the word goes back to Latin caulis ‘stem, stalk, cabbage’. The word is attested from Old English on; it is now rare except in combinations like cole slaw; and it was originally
A general name for various species of Brassica; now esp. Rape ( B. napus); also applied to Sea-Kale ( Crambe maritima).
(Rapeseed oil is now marketed as canola oil, as a way of avoiding the uncomfortable associations of the word rape.)
So the cole piece of cole slaw can be glossed as ‘cabbage’. The slaw piece is from Dutch sla, a shortened form of salade ‘salad’. So: cole slaw is just ‘cabbage salad’.
The OED identifies slaw as a specifically North American word, glossed as
A salad made of sliced cabbage, etc. Also, any dish the main ingredient of which is sliced cabbage.
The OED‘s cites for slaw tell an interesting story. Here’s the whole set:
1794 Massachusetts Spy 12 Nov., A piece of sliced cabbage, by Dutchmen ycleped cold slaw.
1861 T. Winthrop Cecil Dreeme xiv. 157 Pad of butter. Plate of slaw, ready vinegared.
1864 Daily Telegr. 9 Feb., Salted cucumber, beetroot and cold slaugh.
1890 Daily News 23 Dec. 5/2 Salsify, cold slaw (sliced cabbage) with rich mayonnaise dressing.
1905 N.Y. Evening Post 23 Sept. 2 Mince pie, hokey-pokey ice cream, over-ripe watermelon, frankfurters with hot slaw — all the less expensive and less desirable articles of diet go to stunt the gamin’s growth.
1916 Chambers’s Jrnl. Feb. 143/1 In Canada it [sc. celery cabbage] is used for cold slaw.
1944 Sun (Baltimore) 1 Nov. 10/7 It was customary in his family in his boyhood to serve a ‘hot slaw’ with turkey, the slaw consisting of cabbage cooked with vinegar and sugar.
1977 National Observer (U.S.) 22 Jan. 9/1 If she craves tossed salad when the price of lettuce is high, she resolutely buys cabbage and makes slaw instead.
From the beginning, then, we have cold slaw as a spelling for the dish, indicating a reinterpretation of the first element in the Dutch original (for a dish served as a cold salad). Then we see the truncation of cole slaw to slaw, cole slaw being at first the only dish called slaw. And then the extension of slaw to hot dishes made with sliced cabbage.
The final development is not represented in OED2′s citations, but it’s nicely illustrated in a NYT food column by Mark Bittman from last September, “Shred Your Inhibitions and Embrace a Surprising Slaw” (recipes here). Slaws eight ways:
kohlrabi-sesame slaw, brussels sprouts slaw with peanuts, banh mi [daikon] slaw, broccoli and seaweed slaw, fennel and celery slaw with grapefruit, carrot and raisin slaw, pulled-pork sandwich slaw (no pork) [shredded cabbage with mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, Dijon mustard, and dill pickles], beet slaw with saffron aioli
Bittman explains that he’s extending the word slaw:
If you expand the notion of slaw to include any vegetable that can benefit from the same kind of treatment — shred it, toss it with dressing (mayo-based or not) and serve whenever — you can call that slaw.
… Some of the recipes call for salting, which draws out water (and bitterness) from the veggies and makes them sweeter (in theory), crunchier (for sure) and more tender (not a contradiction). You can skip salting if you’re short on time, and you can add salt to recipes if your vegetables aren’t perfect specimens. In general, most vegetables benefit from salting, but it’s a refinement. These recipes use vegetables (and fruits) that are plentiful now, or will be at some point before midwinter. The flavors range from Asian to Mediterranean to New-Agey to “American.” They’re all, however, considerably more interesting than standard coleslaw — no matter what definition you use.
Almost all of them also have an acid ingredient — lemon juice or lime juice — in place of the vinegar in traditional cole slaw. Three of them illustrated:
They all sound delicious.