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Summertime: socks, sandals, and strawberries

As those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are enjoying our summer, thoughts inevitably turn to those things we associate most strongly with Britain in that particular season.

Strawberries and cream

Of all the quintessential features of a British summer perhaps the most linguistically English of them all is the strawberry.

Croquet and socks

Croquet came to Britain from Brittany via Ireland. Men in socks with sandals have been seen on the catwalks of Milan. There are even some other countries that know about summer rain (think of all those monsoons). But, whereas most of our ancient words have cousins in other European languages—cream for example has firm roots in Latin, Creme (or crème) appears in German and French—no other language in the world has a word quite like our strawberry.

Mystery of the runners

In German it’s Erdbeere , in French fraise, in Latin fragum, (which gives us our scientific name Fragaria), so quite where the English word comes from is a bit of a mystery.

Some say it’s because gardeners use straw under the fruit to protect them from the mud. But in fact the word is almost certainly much older than this particular horticultural practice. Straw would have been too precious to be used in this way when the word was coined by the Anglo-Saxons back before the Norman conquest (the word was in use around 1000 A.D.); and the Anglo-Saxon strawberries were much smaller than modern varieties, too light to weigh down the plants and touch the ground.

It might alternatively be that the runners which strawberry plants are always giving off, because they’re long and slender and, well, straw-like, were called the straw of the berry plant by people who didn’t know to call it fragum.

Others posit a more plausible theory is that those little yellow bits that speckle the surface of a strawberry look like straw.

Not the only fruit

Each of those yellow bits— the technical name for one of them is an achene—is actually a fruit in its own right and another thing that make strawberry rather special, botanically as well as linguistically. This means each little red ball of joy is actually dozens of fruit and the red stuff, the stuff that makes them so tasty, isn’t fruit at all.

The knotted hanky

Sunflowers and dandelions have achenes too, and both are perfectly summery, as indeed is a knotted hanky, but nothing is so summery, nor so British, as the strawberry. Unless of course it is rain – something that our friends in the Southern Hemisphere need not bring to our attention. However, the punnets of delicious strawberries should make up for that.