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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Five a Day

Where do the terms "avocado," "banana," "onion," and other names for our fruits and vegetables come from? Here we examine the many unusual origins of the terms for our dietary necessities.


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Our last word exploration took us to the flowering plants on the hillsides and in the meadows. This time, we shall look to the more cultivated crops: our fruits and vegetables. Their monikers are frequently taken for granted. Some names seem to transcend cultures (is a rutabaga by any other name still a rutabaga?). As you plant your vegetables and gather the fruits of the summer, perhaps you will view them with a new eye after reading the etymologies provided here.

One of my favorite French terms is pomme de terre. I learned it early in my four years of classes in that language and never forgot it. The pomme means "apple" and terre means "earth" - and an "earth apple" is, quite simply, a "potato." "Potato" comes from the Spanish patata (or batata - meaning "sweet potato"). But both the patata and batata were slurred from the terms of the 1500s (coined by Sir. John Hawkins) to become our "potato" (Barnhart, p. 824) - and the term has been applied to both sweet and white varieties of this earth apple (also its name in German: Erdapfel). In 1719 it was transplanted in America (in New Hampshire) by the Irish (no surprise there) where it was dug from the earth with a tool resembling a spade (Hendrickson, p. 541). This tool used to extract the starchy vegetable from the ground was called a "spud" (you see where we're going here) and that is what has given the potato its distinctly American nickname "spud." In 1667, Samuel Pepys, in his diary, described this "short dagger or knife" used for digging purposes and soon the term was applied to the object it was bringing forth as well. Note: there is a rumor that "SPUD" is an acronym that stands for "Society for the Prevention of Unwholesome Diet," promoting the banning or rejection of the vegetable. This is because it was considered a less than desirable food, fit only for consumption by animals. While many of the richer classes did shun the potato, the Irish lower classes found it to make an acceptable, and inexpensive, meal (potato famines not withstanding), causing that acronym to make some sense, however inaccurate it may be (Quinion, p. 231). As for its lack of popularity, I think that McDonald's, and all other American fast food enterprises, with their "French fries," "curly fries," and "chili cheese fries," would beg to differ.

Rhyming with potato is, of course, "tomato." Where would we be without the tomato? My neighbors grow immense quantities of these, making me break out into song: "The only two things that money can't buy: That's true love and home grown tomatoes" (song by Guy Clark). Here is another unusual vegetable, since it's really a fruit. Some call it a "love apple," as it was thought to possess aphrodisiac properties. The name came from Mexico: tomatl which, once the plant was brought to Europe (Spain and Portugal), became tomate, pronounced as three syllables. It was then taken to France and reduced to two syllables (to-mate) before it made its way back across the ocean to America. In the mid-1700s it acquired an "o" ending here, making it sound more like its original incarnation (Funk, pp. 218-219). (Here is where we break into a rousing chorus of "you say 'tomato,' I say . . ." Well, maybe not.)

The next "apple" we will examine is called the "mad apple" - called such because it was thought to cause insanity (strangely, others thought it to be another food that possessed aphrodisiac qualities and used the "love apple" label, as we saw applied to the tomato). I am referring, of course, to "eggplant," which has no real "egg" properties, except for its shape. There are, however, some varieties which, instead of the common purple color, sport a white skin, making it look like a giant egg. You may find references to this fruit in the papers of your ancestors as "Guinea squash." The English called this plant aubergine; the first use of the term "eggplant" was in 1767 in England (where it had been transplanted from India, its Native country of origin) (Hendrickson, p. 229).

One more "apple" reference: My husband's seventh great-grandfather was Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island. When he was introduced to asquutasquash, he said they were "vine apples," due to their size and pleasing taste. The term, from the Narragansett Indian language, meaning "that which is eaten raw," was eventually altered to squantersquash and then, more recently, shortened to squash, the word we use today for the gourd plant in the melon family (Funk, pp. 175-176), which no one I know eats raw (even if it allegedly tastes good that way)!

As already discussed, slurring words often creates new renditions that we love to adopt; such is the case of the Latin word "asparagus." The common term (as opposed to the one used by the botanists) was sparage or sperage, but in an effort to make the word less lower-class in sound, the formal Latin term became the popular one (quite unusual when we realize that virtually every plant has a Latin name, about which most average consumers are oblivious). But additional metamorphoses took place in the 17th Century, giving this vegetable such names as 'speragus, sparagrass, and sparrowgrass (American Heritage, pp. 12-13). Note: using the proper name, "asparagus," in the Latin form, means its plural is "asparagi," not "asparaguses" (in spite of what my "Word" program recognizes).

"Would you like coleslaw with that?" We take that phrase for granted, but have you ever thought about what an odd word that is? Where on earth did we come up with "coleslaw" for shredded cabbage with some sort of dressing? As a child, I thought it was "cold slaw" and expected it to be far more chilled than most of what I received when the dish was served. It turns out, by the way, that "cold slaw" is an "alternate spelling" in some dictionaries (no doubt due to usage, not accuracy). Actually, the term is a shortening (another slurred vegetable) of koolsalade from the Dutch (kool meaning "cabbage" and salade - pronounced "sla" - meaning, well, "salad"). The Anglicized version is first found in about 1794 (Morris, p. 48).

Naturally, this takes us to "kale" (OK, maybe not naturally, but this is where I'm taking us). This comes from the Latin word for "cabbage": caulis. And kale does not stand alone in its word pedigree, it has siblings: "cauliflower," "collard greens," and "kohlrabi." Their vegetable cousins are broccoli (which has the col root - for the word, not the plant), Brussels sprouts, and cabbage (green and red varieties). How we got from "kale" to "cole" is really an interesting aspect of the evolution of the language: the Old English pronunciation caused the change. The Old English "stone" was pronounced "stane," just as "bane" was the Old English pronunciation of the Middle English "bone." Be it "cole" or "kale," it is all cabbage in the end (American Heritage, pp. 151-152).

I live in California where, I do believe, the state fruit is the avocado. Again, we must go to a different language to find the etymological origin of this plant. Ahuacatl is its name in Aztec, which is also the word for "testicle" in that language (American Heritage, p. 16). This became aguacate to the Spaniards, but then was transformed into avocado, meaning "lawyer" (think "advocate" here). Some termed it avocado pear (due to the shape, not the taste). When the avocado tree was transplanted in the West Indies in the 1700s, it acquired a new name: alligator pear. This metamorphosis is presumed either to be because of the tropical area in which it grew - sharing the terrain with the alligators - or because of its "alligator skin" texture (Quinion, pp. 21-22). Here in California (where there is a pleasant lack of alligators), we are content to call it "avocado," unless, of course, it has been mashed and seasoned and we enjoy it as guacamole - a term that also comes from the Aztecs: ahuacamolli, meaning "avocado soup or sauce" (American Heritage, p. 16).

One more food that allegedly has aphrodisiac qualities: the onion. "Onion" is derived from unio, Latin for "oneness" or "union." This term is quite fitting for the vegetable of many layers, all squeezed together to create the strong food that some consider responsible for the strength of the Egyptian workers who built the pyramids. Ironically, the term unio is also the Roman word for "pearl" (which, too, is comprised of layers), making the "pearl onion" translate to unio unio (Hendrickson, p. 498).

Here is one last morsel, also derived from appearance: "Banana." The word for "finger" in Arabic is banan. When traders saw the plant, they thought that the bunches resembled hands and, so each single fruit appeared to be like a digit (Garrison, pp. 106-107). The Latin term for the most common tree in the species is Musa sapientum, named for Antonio Musa, the Roman emperor's personal physician, and the Latin sapientum, meaning "wise man"; this because the Indian sages would languish in the shade of the banana tree, enjoying the fruit and sharing their wisdom (Hendrickson, p. 48).

Like our ancestors, many of our common edible plants today had their origins in far away countries. And, also like our ancestors, many had their names changed as they migrated from one region to another. Finally, like our ancestors, these parts of our lives help us develop into the best we can be. So as you enjoy your five fruits and vegetables each day, perhaps you will become stronger (able to do more genealogy?), develop amorous feelings for someone in your life, or gain wisdom. Or maybe you will just stay healthy. Our ancestors probably ate more of these foods than we do today because they really were the "fast food" of the times: one need only go out to the garden or orchard, pick one, and pop it in the mouth! Can't get any faster than that.


American Heritage Dictionaries. Word Histories and Mysteries: From Abracadabra to Zeus. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004.

Barnhart, Robert K., Ed. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Chambers, 2003.

Funk, Charles Earle. Horsefeathers & Other Curious Words. New York: Harper & Row, 1958, 1986

Garrison, Webb B. Why You Say It: The Fascinating Stories behind over 700 Everyday Words and Phrases. New York: Abingdon Press, 1955.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. & Expanded Ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 1997, 2000.

Morris, Evan. The Word Detective: Solving the Mysteries behind Those Pesky Words and Phrases. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2000.

Quinion, Michael. Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins. New York: Smithsonian Books, 2006.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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