31 May 2016

Fruity Stories: The Origins of Five Fruit Names

We take fruit for granted, even the fact that they may travel thousands of miles before they arrive in our stores.  Just as fruit must make a journey, so their names have also traveled a distance.  This, however, has been a journey across the centuries and from culture to culture. So just where did their names come from? Let’s take a look at five popular fruit and discover how their English names came to be.

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Like many words, orange entered the English language through Old French – orenge.  This came from Old Provencal, auranja, which had borrowed the word from the Arabic nāranj.  This in turn came from Sanskrit, where the word for orange tree was nāranga.

The word we use today is perhaps just about recognizable from the original, yet one has to wonder where the ‘n’ at the beginning went.  The most likely reason is something called juncture loss – a linguistic change. When French folk said, “une norenge” it is likely that people heard “une orenge” instead and, little by little, that’s what it became.

Several modern European languages use a word we would not recognize as the name of the fruit.  There is portokall in Albanian and portokali in Greek to name but two.  The reason for this linguistic divergence is thought to be that Portuguese merchants were the first to introduce this fruit to these countries.

Incidentally, the orange is a hybrid – a cross between a pomelo and mandarin.  Its cultivation is first recorded in southern China about 2,500 BC.  So perhaps we should instead be calling it a 橙子 which in English is written chéngzi.

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What have the Romans ever done for us? They noticed a tasty looking fruit in Greece which the locals called mēlopepon and took it back to Rome where it became melopepo.  The Greek name was a combination of two words – melon which means "apple" and pepōn which means a kind of gourd.  The word eventually contracted and was passed around many other European languages, English included.

The melon is a berry. Its fruit stems from one flower with one ovary.  This is unlike strawberries which come from one flower with more than one ovary, making them an aggregate fruit and so not a true berry at all.

Although the word melon was used in ancient Greek as a generic term for any fruit introduced from other lands it was not long before the word was used for other things too.  What part of a lady’s anatomy, even today, is regularly referred to by unreconstructed men as a lovely pair of melons? Well, so it was in ancient Greece too.  It seems there is nothing new under the sun.

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The date is thought to have originated in what is now Iraq but once cultivated it became a vital part of the diets of people from Egypt to Pakistan.  The Arabic word for the fruit was daqal and the Hebrew deqel. The Greeks embraced the fruit and called it daktylos, for its long, slim shape. Why? Daktylos was also their name for finger and the word transformed to dactylus in Latin and thence to Old Provencal where it was referred to as datil.  From there to Old French which called it the date and obligingly passed it on to the English language in that form.

So, when you eat a date you are effectively eating a fruity finger.

If daktylos is ringing bells then you may be a dinosaur fan.  The name Pterodactylus, popularly known as pterodactyl means ‘winged finger’.

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Over to South Central Mexico now and to the home of the avocado.  The Aztecs cultivated the avocado and in their language they called it āhuacatl.  The conquistadors couldn’t quite get their tongue around that and approximated it to aguacate.

The English, being the world-renowned linguists they are, strangled this in to avogato which eventually became the word as we know it today.  The French scratched their heads and wondered why a fruit would have such a legal-sounding name, shrugged their shoulders and blithely proceeded to call it avocat which means lawyer.

This isn’t at all what the Aztecs had in mind.  The original word āhuacatl was also used by them as slang for testicle.  So, perhaps there is a connection with the legal profession after all…

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Another of the world’s favorite berries (yes, truly), the banana comes originally from Papua New Guineau and Southeast Asia yet its name comes from nowhere near this geography.  Although debate rages about the arrival of the banana in Africa it is generally thought they arrived in Madagascar with the Malagasy people (from Borneo) around 500 CE. They quickly spread, through cultivation, along the eastern seaboard of the continent.

Fast forward a thousand years and Portuguese sailors took the banana to their plantations in the Atlantic Islands, Brazil, and western Africa.  They also took the name, which they borrowed from the Wolof people of what is now modern day Senegal and Gambia. By that time the banaana as it was known had travelled the breadth of the continent.

The Wolof verb to taste was nyam which is where many etymologists believe we get the words yum and yummy.  So, next time you have one, announce to the world (or whoever will listen) that your banana is yummy. You will be effectively speaking an ancient African language.

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