The Origins of Tempera and Tempura

“How did you know who my employer is?” whispered Amira Khan.

“I didn’t,” I said. “I played a hunch and you confirmed it.”

She rolled her dark, neatly outlined eyes. “Oh, that old trope.”

“You can’t have a pastiche without a few clichés.”

“Okay, well, back to your temp- assignment. Are tempera and tempura related to tempo, temperature, temperament and the rest of those words relating to time, space and mixing in proper proportions?”

“Ah. Food and art: some of my favorite subjects. Tempera and tempura sound almost the same, especially if you approximate the Japanese pronunciation of tempura by eliding the U, but you wouldn’t want to paint with the wrong one and eat the other. Reminds me of an art instructor I once had who confused ocher and okra.

“Starting with the simplest, as you see here in the OED, tempura, the Japanese dish of seafood and vegetables — and sometimes some other things — deep fried in batter, probably comes from the Portuguese tempêro, meaning ‘seasoning.’” I pulled out my phone.

Ice cream tempura

“As you can see here on Infopedia Dicionário da Língua Portuguesa, tempero comes from the verb temperar, which comes from the Latin temperāre, so it is related to those other temp- words.

“The origin of tempera is a bit stranger. Tempera is a paint that can be mixed with water. They used to use egg yolk as an emulsion for the pigment. Very popular for painting on wood panels in the Middle Ages; not so big once oil paint came along.”

“Look at this,” said Ms. Khan. “The OED defines it as ‘The method of painting in distemper.’ I thought distemper was something dogs got.”

“Right. The dictionary directs us to the second definition of the noun distemper and from there to the verb. Here’s the etymology


Old French destemprer , to dissolve in liquid, soak, mix < dis- prefix + Latin temperāre to mingle in due proportion, qualify, temper.

“Dis- in Latin meant ‘two’ or ‘split in two,’ so distemper referred to changing the temper, or constitution, of a substance by diluting it. Distemper in the sense of the canine disease goes back to what we said about temperament being the proper mixture of bodily ‘humors.’ Shakespeare uses distemper in several plays to mean ‘Deranged or disordered condition of the body or mind; madness or ill health.’”

“Well, You-Know-Who will be in quite a temper – or is it lose her temper – if I don’t check in with her. Excuse me while I text her an update.”

Tempura ice cream photographer: Derek Mawhinney Date: 8/27/2005. *I license this under Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 |Source=Originally from [ en.wikipedia]Laura as Lexie: J.B. Herman
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