Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

If you are working on a bowl of noodle soup and you need some chicken stock, do you ask for a bouillon cube? Or is it a bullion cube? What about when you’re talking about buying some gold bullion… or maybe it’s gold bouillon. When spoken, it can be difficult to discern the difference between these two words without adequate context. When written, you’ll want to make sure you’re picking the right one. Otherwise, you’ll end up with some golden soup or a very expensive cube of dehydrated stock.

Perhaps a big part of the confusion here is that both bouillon and bullion have the same root origin: they are derived from the old French word “bouillon,” which roughly translates to “boiling.”

A Bowl of Dried Soup

In the case of bouillon in English, it’s a broth used in cooking, particularly for stewing fish or meat. More commonly, you may be familiar with dehydrated bouillon cubes that you find at the supermarket. In effect, you have the soup stock that has been reduced to a granular form, containig dehydrated vegetables, meat stock, fat and seasoning.

They also come in little jars or cans where the cubes have not been formed, but you effectively get the same powdery substance. Knorr is perhaps one of the best known brands of bouillon cubes.

When I make a simple bowl of dumpling soup or noodle soup for #KwansCreativeCatering, I may use some dried bouillon to concoct my soup base. It’s just not practical to develop fresh chicken stock every time and those little cubes are very convenient. The connection between “boiling” and soup stock is clear enough.

Trading in Precious Metals

Spelled just a little differently, bullion is an entirely different term. Instead, it refers to bars, coins and other “ingots” of precious metals for the purpose being traded as a commodity. Standard one-ounce silver coins can be called silver bullion, just as standard five-ounce gold bars can be called gold bullion. Gold and silver are the most common commodities, followed by platinum.

The connection to the old French term for “boiling” comes from the simple fact that you’d melt down the gold, silver or other precious metal in order to form the coins and bars. In fact, bullion was once the term for a melting house.

Here in Vancouver, I’ve come to refer to VBCE (Vancouver Bullion and Currency Exchange) simply as “the Bullion,” even though I really only use the currency exchange part of their business and not the buying and selling of precious metals.

The Mental Trick

One way to remember the difference between bouillon and bullion is that the former has the “I” in front of the “L,” as would be the case with boILing soup. The latter contains the word “bull,” as in bull and bear market trends in commodity trading. When in doubt, look it up!

Have a grammar question wracking your brain? Leave a comment below with your suggestion and I’ll add it to the queue for a future entry in the Grammar 101 series.