A Taste of Garden Etymology

7717687746_cb5f70b4a1_oToday, I’d like to pay a little homage to my vegetable garden. With all the rain and heat we’ve had this year, things are thriving. The tomatoes are attempting a coup and the cucumbers have made a break for the world outside the fence. Needless to say, I’ll be pickling and canning like crazy for the next few weeks.

But before I’m swept up in the harvest, I thought it would be fun to share a little garden etymology with you. So let’s dig right in!

Cucumber
The word for this refreshing fruit (yep, it’s a fruit, even though you usually find it in the vegetable section) came to English in the late 1300s from the Old French word, cocombre, which in turn came from the Latin word, cucumerem. It may have come to Latin from an older Mediterranean language, but that’s as far as the vine takes us. The word cucumber replaced the Old English word eorþæppla, which literally meant earth-apples.

A couple of interesting side notes: the pronunciation, cowcumber, was commonly used from the 1600s into the 1800s. And the idiom “as cool as a cucumber,” which first appeared in the mid-1700s, comes from ancient folk wisdom that says the inside of a cucumber is cooler than the air surrounding it — something that remains a topic of hot debate on the Internet.

Melon
The word melon came to English in the 1200s from the Old French word, melon, which in turn came from the Medieval Latin word, melonem. That came from the older Latin word, melopeponem, which was the word for a type of pumpkin. Melopeponem came from the ancient Greek word, melopepon, which meant gourd-apple and referred to a bunch of different gourds that produced sweet fruit. The Greek word is a composite of the words melon, which meant apple (a word that was used generically to refer to all foreign fruits), and the noun pepon, which referred to a type of gourd (the adjective pepon meant ripe).

This year, I planted cantaloupes, something I’ve never had success growing before. Much to my surprise, they have really taken off. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be looking for things to do with cantaloupes, so if you have any good recipes you’d like to share, please feel free to do so!

Garlic
This bulb, which strikes fear into the hearts of vampires everywhere, gets its name from Old English. In West Saxon, the word was garlec, and in Mercian it was garleac. It evolved slightly in Middle English, when it became garlek, before making its way into modern English with the spelling we now use. The original Old English word is a combination of the words gar, which meant spear, and leac, which referred to a leek. So garlic really means leek-spear, which is kind of fitting, giving its vampire-repelling properties.

Tomato
This delicious garden-dominating fruit has some interesting etymology. It came to English around 1600 from the Spanish word, tomate, which in turn came from the Nahuatl word, tomatl (Nahuatl is one of the Uto-Aztecan languages). Tomatl apparently means the swelling fruit, coming from the verb, tomana, which means to swell.

Interestingly — and perhaps because it’s a member of the nightshade family — Europeans were slow to embrace this fruit as food. Some opted to grow it as an ornamental plant, while others claimed it was poisonous. Finally, an Italian chef is said to have taken the plunge, bringing tomatoes from Spain to Florence, where he cooked them for members of the Borgias family. It’s hard to imagine what Italian cuisine would be like today if it weren’t for that chef.

And there you have it. A little etymology for the gardener (or foodie) in you. Bon appétit!


Image credit: Me

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8 thoughts on “A Taste of Garden Etymology

  1. That’s very interesting. I’m not sure if you’d be interested or not (or if you already know about it), but there is an excellent free podcast by someone called Kevin Stroud called The History of English Podcast.

    (I’m not Kevin Stroud nor do I know him, by the way. I just thought it might be worth mentioning it to you. The website for his podcast is: http://historyofenglishpodcast.com/)

  2. The potato’s history is really a tale of two tubers, both born in New World dirt. What we know as a potato began in Peru, where it fed the Inca empire and residents of the Andean altiplano going back at least 7,000 years.
    The sweet potato, which belongs to a different species entirely, started out in the tropical warmth of the stretch of Central America between the Yucatan and the Venezuelan highlands.
    “Batatas” is a native Caribbean word for sweet potatoes,

    It wasn’t until the 1530s that Spanish explorers made it all the way to Peru, where they found a white-fleshed tuber that the locals called papas. And once those worked their way up to England in the 1590s, things got a little confused. What we call just plain potatoes were “Virginia potatoes” (or “bastard potatoes”) at first, but as they became more and more common in the British Isles (like, for instance, in Ireland), people dropped the “Virginia,” leaving us with just one word for two very different foods: “potato.” Which meant that for most of the 17th century, it’s impossible to tell which potato people were talking about.

    Eventually, since the English climate was much more disposed to the white than the sweet, we settled on calling the sweet potatoes “sweet potatoes,” but it’s interesting to see how different Europeans dealt with the same problem. The French kept things very separate, with pomme de terre for the white ones and patate douce for the sweet, the Italians ended up calling sweet potatoes patata americana (in the inverse of older English), and the Germans came up with the same solution as us, with Kartoffel and Susskartoffel. Only the Spanish, the initial point of contact with both of these tubers, stuck to the original papa and patate divide.

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