Friday, January 17, 2020

Recipes or Receipts?

by Davalynn Spencer

The first time I saw the word “receipt” used in a historical cooking reference, I thought I’d misread the word “recipe.”

I hadn’t.

Recipes were once called receipts. As an author of historical fiction, I did some checking to find out which word I should be using for my stories set in the 1800s.

Both receipt and recipe are derivatives of the Latin word recipere, a verb meaning to take or receive.

So what’s the difference?
A well-used recipe from the author's collection.
In today’s vernacular, recipe refers to instructions and ingredients used for cooking purposes: The 3 x 5 card on which my great-aunt Laura wrote out instructions for her pie crust.

Receipt is a statement of money or goods received: The strip of paper from a cash register given to me after I buy something at the market. (Though I guess they’re not just “cash” registers anymore are they.)

The early 1700s saw the advent of “recipe,” but it didn’t supplant “receipt” until well into the twentieth century, as indicated by these three volumes: Tullie's Receipts: Nineteeth Century Plantation Plain Style Southern Cooking and Living; Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the pages of Godey's Lady's Book, and Confederate Receipt Book, a Compilation of Over One Hundred Receipts, Adapted to the Times.

Amazingly, the usage of our modern word recipe for culinary-related purposes, is a mere three-hundred years old.


We have trees that are older.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, recipe became part of the English language in the 1400s and was used by physicians. It was not used in reference to cooking until 1716. Culinary verbiage prior to the 1700s was receipt, so says the OED.

However, other historical resources say it was the word “receipt” that pharmacists used. Physicians wrote the word at the top of the prescriptions, recording what the patient received, as in a formula for a medicinal preparation. The letter R with a slash through the right leg became an abbreviated form of the word receipt, and went on to serve as a brand, logo, or icon identifying pharmacists and pharmacies.

Of three research sources for this article, two agreed to the evolution of the emblem from the word recipe, and one insisted that Rx was the medicinal abbreviation for recipe.

Regardless, one particularly interesting book is Dr. Chase's Family Physician, Farrier, Bee-Keeper and Second Receipts Book. 
Dr. A.W. Chase, image courtesy of Google Books.
It contains receipts for corn bread, beer, Parker-house rolls, wedding cake, and camphor elixir, as well as instructions for brick-laying, butter-making, and dealing with cholera, colic, and the common cold.
Title page, courtesy Google Books
Winter-evening reading, to be sure.

Clearly the exchange from receipt to recipe was not instantaneous nor complete. We’re talking about language, after all, and we know how slowly it changes. I would argue that language, especially the English language, is one of the few things that truly evolves.

Basically, it depends upon whose grandmother was sharing her family’s secret for breads, cakes, etc. as to whether she used receipt or recipe.

Few, if any, today use the word receipt when speaking of a recipe, whether literally or metaphorically. Think about it. Have you ever heard anyone tout their receipt for success?

Just in Time for Christmas

Retrieving Mams’s receipt book from the bottom of a satchel, Abigale took it to the rocker and began searching for inspiration. Her grandmother’s distinctive flourishes filled the pages, receipts for pies and cakes as well as potions and salves. As Abigale thumbed through the collection, a folded paper slid to the floor, one she’d forgotten about. ~Just in Time for Christmas

Davalynn Spencer can’t stop #lovingthecowboy. As the wife and mother of professional rodeo bullfighters, she writes romance for those who enjoy a Western tale with a rugged hero, both historical and contemporary. She holds the Will Rogers Gold Medallion for Inspirational Western Fiction, teaches writing workshops, and plays the keyboard on her church worship team. When she’s not writing, teaching, or playing, she’s wrangling Blue the Cowdog and mouse detectors Annie and Oakley. Learn more about Davalynn and her books at


  1. Thank you for sharing your very interesting post!

  2. Very interesting! I work in pharmacy and didn't know the origin of the "Rx". Thanks for the post!

  3. I've wondered about this very thing too. So which did you decide to use?

    1. Vickie, I went with receipt. Wanted to keep the historical flavoring!

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  5. Loved this. My mom often used receipt instead of recipe. I used to get annoyed until I looked up the history of the word. Thanks, Davalynn.

    1. Nancy - Funny how we grow up with history and don't realize it at the time. I wish I could talk to my great-aunt Laura who taught me how to make pie crust, sugar cookies, and mouth-watering dinner rolls - all from her memory.

  6. I have never heard of receipt being used for recipe. If I saw that in a book, I'd think it was a typo!