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The etymological ingredients of food aren’t always appetitizing

March 2012

In his book Crazy English, wordsmith Richard Lederer makes us question the ingredients of many of our foods. After all, there’s no egg in eggplant, no peas or nuts in peanuts, and blackberries are green and then red before they are ripe.

How can we trust the fruits we eat when a grapefruit has nothing to do with grape and a pineapple doesn’t seem to be related to a pine tree or an apple? Are strawberries named for straw? What about raspberries?

In the case of “strawberry,” etymologists are divided on the meaning of “straw.” Whereas some believe it derives from an obsolete sense of the word “small piece of chaff,” referring to the external seeds, others think it derives from the fact that the plant’s runners resemble straws. “Raspberry” derives from an obsolete English word for the fruit “raspis.”

The designations “grapefruit” and “pineapple” highlight the fact that often words are named for seemingly peculiar perceptions. The only resemblance between a grapefruit and a grape is that both are grown in clusters but this was enough for it to be called “grapefruit.” An apple must have been deemed to be the generic fruit for a long time because by the 13th century, the term “pineapple” was applied in English to “a pine cone.” The word was applied to the fruit in the mid-17th century, because of its similarity in shape to a pine cone.

This doesn’t look at all like an apple. Photo: Gérald Anfossi

Another fruit named for its perceived appearance was the “coconut.” When 15th-century Portuguese explorers discovered this delicacy in the Indian Ocean islands, they fancied that the three little indentations at the base of the large nut looked like eyes. Thinking that these three “eyes” gave the nut the appearance of a grinning face, they named it the “coconut,” coca being the Portuguese word for a grimacing face.

These fruits, however, have tepid etymologies compared with the avocado, which ultimately derives from the Nahuatl language of South America where it was given the name ahuacatl, “testicle,” because of the similarity in shape. The Spanish conquistadors absorbed this word originally as aguacate but before long the word morphed into avocado, the Spanish word for “advocate.”

In the name of etymological propriety, one might be particularly resistant to eating vanilla ice cream. In Elizabethan England, vanilla was thought to have aphrodisiac properties because the sheath-like shape of the pod of the plant bore a resemblance to the vagina. Nor were the English alone in this gynecological perception, as the word “vanilla” comes from the Spanish for “little vagina.” Similarly, you might not want to know that vermicelli is a form of the Italian word for worm, verme. It is so named because when heated, it expands and exudes what resembles small worms.

Also not particularly appetizing is the etymology of pumpernickel bread. This coarse bread is the progeny of the unholy union of the New High German, pumpern, “to break wind” and nickel, “goblin” or “devil.” It was claimed that if you ate pumpernickel you’d fart like the devil. The aubergine, on the other hand, enjoys an anti-flatulent heritage. It began its life as the Sanskrit vatinganah that referred to the lack of gas it produces. It went through a transcontinental migration to become the Catalan alberginia, and finally French aubergine.

Occasionally this process can also work in reverse; a non-food word can derive from a food. If sausage represents one of your favourite foods, it behooves me to relate that your bowels are etymologically “little sausages.” The word comes from the Latin botellus, which meant “intestine” or “little sausage.” It is said that the Romans used the same word for intestine as sausage because soldiers noticed a distinct resemblance of the slashed stomachs of their slain comrades to sausages.

Bon appetit.

Howard Richler’s From Gay (Happy) to Gay (Homosexual) and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published by Ronsdale Press in 2013.



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