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Artichokes to zucchinis: a vegetarian alphabet

I’ve been a vegetarian for a little over half my life, and I know certain struggles that vegetarians have to put up with. But one area we don’t struggle with is language. I decided to take a mosey through various words connected with vegetables and vegetarianism, and discovered that the produce aisle at the supermarket isn’t just rich in nutrients and health, it’s also rich in linguistic interest… Here’s an interesting word for every letter of the alphabet.


As well as being delicious, artichoke is a nice example of folk etymology – that is, a popular but mistaken account of the origin of a term which has no evidence to back it up. Though coming to English from the northern Italian articiocco, the English spelling is probably influenced by the word choke, either from a notion that the flower’s inedible centre would choke someone eating it, or that the plant’s rapid growth could choke other plants.


Arguably (by me) the best vegetable, you don’t need to be bilingual to suspect an Italian origin. In fact, it is the diminutive of brocco, meaning ‘shoot or stalk’ – or, rather, broccolo is, and broccoli is the plural, literally ‘little shoots’.


Cauliflower has its origins in a corruption of modern Latin cauli-flōra (meaning ‘a flowered cole or cabbage’) but did your realise that cauliflower could be a verb? I yield to no one in my love of cauliflower cheese, but I have yet to cauliflower a wig (powder it) or cauliflower an ear (disfigure it, particularly in boxing).


Ok, this is pushing it a bit – you might not regularly serve up dandelions with your roast potatoes of a Sunday – but the dandelion can be considered a salad vegetable. Scholars of French might have worked out that dandelion derives from dent de lion – that is, lion’s tooth. “Wait,” I hear you say, “I’m no zoologist, but a dandelion couldn’t look less like a lion’s tooth.” That’s true of the flower, but the leaves – which are also rather more appealing to eat – have a toothed outline. I am dandelion, hear me roar.


I first came across the word eggplant in the Friends episode ‘The One With Five Steaks and an Eggplant’. Reader, I was nonplussed. Eggplant is, of course, the name commonly used in North America to refer to what we in Britain call an aubergine – but did you know that, far from being a recent addition to the language, it is actually documented earlier than aubergine? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) currently dates eggplant to 1767 and aubergine to 1796.


I can’t be the only person who first stumbled across fruitarian via Hugh Grant’s girlfriend-montage in Notting Hill. But the word fruitarian (a person who eats only fruit) has been around rather longer than that – the OED currently dates it to 1893.


The use of green to  describe vegetation dates back to Old English, but the dinner table staple use eat up your greens – that is, greens (and occasionally the singular green) as a colloquial term for green vegetables for human consumption – is currently dated to 1710. By the mid-nineteenth century, the connotation of ‘greens’ being something needed regularly had led to the slang to get one’s greens (and similar) being used to refer to sexual intercourse…


Vegetarians will understand the fear I live in, when venturing to a new restaurant, that the menu might be nothing but meat. Spotting halloumi on a menu is often a huge relief when things look desperate. Halloumi is also an interesting instance of an OED entry where the probable earliest reference in English is a typo. In 1960 Robin Howe’s Greek Cooking referred to ‘halorini’, and has been marked as ‘probably represent[ing] a transcription error’ – leaving The Times in 1970 to steal the earliest known use crown. (The Greek Cooking mention appears in the entry in square brackets.)

Iceberg lettuce

There is a story that this common variety of lettuce, also known as crisphead lettuce, got its name from the way it was transported by train, covered in ice. Bruce Church, founder of Fresh Express, developed this technique in the 1920s – and used the catchphrase ‘The icebergs are coming!’ to advertise his produce. However, the OED dates iceberg lettuce back to 1893, so sadly Mr Church cannot lay claim to having invented the name.

Jerusalem artichoke

Jerusalem artichoke is a curious name for a vegetable that it not an artichoke and has no connection with Jerusalem. It is a member of the daisy family, as is the artichoke, but the first half of the name is more of a mystery. It has been suggested that it is an alteration of the Italian girasole, meaning sunflower, as the flower of the Jerusalem artichoke resembles it. If so, it would be another example of folk etymology.


Kale is the go-to vegetable for health-conscious celebrities (so I’m told) but it seems that the Scots were a few centuries ahead of the trend. Kale makes an appearance in a couple of traditional Scottish phrases – cauld kale het again (that is, ‘cold kale served again’; figuratively meaning something stale served for a second time, such as an old sermon being repeated), and to give him his kale through the reek (to treat someone in an unpleasant fashion; to let him ‘have it’).


Lettuce comes from the Anglo-Norman letuse, which in turn relates to the Latin  lactūca– which, to go one step further, developed from lact- meaning milk (still seen in English in words like lactose and lactate), because of the plant’s milky juice… but, personally, I don’t think I’d want one in a cup of tea.


Although food is often described as vegetarian, why not make absolutely clear what’s been left out? There are some adjectives which emphasise that your food won’t have a face – such as meat-free (first recorded use in 1916) and meatless (1862 with this sense – although a sense dating to Old English means simply ‘without food’, as meat was once used to encompass all food).


And it works the other way too, of course. Once vegetarians were firmly established as a group, a word was needed to demarcate people who, or meals which, are not vegetarian. (Having said that, non-vegetarian people would also make for non-vegetarian meals.) The adjective non-vegetarian dates to 1883, while the noun came around in 1907, according to current findings. By the 1980s, the abbreviation non-veggie had appeared as a noun (1984) and an adjective (1985).


Okra is a vegetable found in many tropical and subtropical regions, but it’s possible that you’ll know it by a different name. It’s also known as bhindi, gumbo, and lady’s fingers. The last of these is a popular term in the vegetable and fruit worlds, also being applied to varieties of apple, banana, potato, and grape.


Whether common, garden, or mushy, we’re probably all familiar with peas – but were you aware that the singular pea (currently dated to 1666) is actually a back-formation of the older word pease (also meaning “a pea”)? That is, pease singular was apprehended as a plural (probably aided by the fact that we don’t often talk about a single pea), which in turn led to the creation of a new singular without -s. As a bonus p- fact, Pasternak – famously the surname of the poet and novelist Boris Pasternak – is Russian for parsnip.


Another vegetarian staple, I’ve found – particularly at bring-and-share meals – is the quiche. A pastry case with an egg-based savoury filling, quiche is a nineteenth-century French word, perhaps related to the German Kuchen (meaning ‘cake’). It first appeared in English in 1925, according to current OED findings. A couple of years earlier, the word guiche was used in a recipe book called Simple French Cooking for English Homes, and is probably either a misapprehension of the French word, or perhaps reflects a French regional variant.

Radish communist

The humble radish is best known to me as one of the foods which tempted Peter Rabbit to trespass into Mr McGregor’s garden, but it took on another meaning, sometimes seen in the compound radish communist –someone ‘red’ on the outside, but not within; that is, professing communist beliefs without genuine commitment. This use of radish dates as far back as 1919, apparently echoing similar uses of the Russian rediska ‘(small red) radish’ by Trotsky and Stalin.


The word for this small onion is perhaps more interesting as a way of introducing a linguistic term, rather than in and of itself – and that term is aphesis. Shallot (or shalot) derives from eschalot, an Anglicized version of the French word eschalotte. It is now far more common without the initial ‘e’ – which is an example of aphesis: ‘the gradual and unintentional loss of a short unaccented vowel at the beginning of a word’. Other instances include squire for esquire and sample for example (or essample in Middle English).


I’ve only really included this so you can give yourself a moment of victory. Well done if you’ve thrown up your hands in outrage – for the tomato is technically a fruit, not a vegetable. But whilst you’re here, you might like to know that it was formerly called the love-apple, for its purportedly aphrodisiac qualities.


I’ve cheated a bit here – the word you’ll be more familiar with (assuming you are not an ancient Roman peasant) is onion, which derives its name from the Latin ūniōn-, from ūnus (meaning ‘one’). It has been suggested that this is because a certain variety of onion puts forth no shoots – that is, it represents a single entity. The same word was used in Latin to describe a large single pearl – either derived from ūnus in the same way, or by association with the shape of the onion. Either way, the similarities in spelling between union and onion aren’t as coincidental as they might first appear.

Vegetarians and vegans

I’m a bit spoilt for choice when it comes to the letter ‘v’, but I couldn’t ignore the word vegetarian in this list, could I? You might be surprised by how recent an addition to the English language it is – the noun dates to 1842, while the adjective was first used a year later, as was the noun vegetarianism. Before the introduction of the word vegetarian, people who refrained from meat were often known as Pythagoreans, because the Greek mathematician Pythagoras was vegetarian; this use dates to the late 16th century.

Vegan, as a noun and adjective relating to someone who abstains from meat, fish, and all animal by-products (such as cheese and milk, and leather), was first used by Donald Watson when he started the British Vegan Society in 1944. It was created by taking the first three and last two letters of the word vegetarian (although pronunciation reflected the spelling rather than they etymology). It was not, however, the first time the word Vegan had been used – four years earlier, it is attested as an adjective relating to the star Vega, or (in 1943) a noun used to delineate one of Vega’s (imagined) inhabitants – nothing to do with vegetables.

Welsh onion

You might be forgiven for thinking that the Welsh onion comes from Wales, but in fact it is chiefly grown in Asia. Where does the name come from, you might ask. In fact, Welsh, in this context, has an older (now obsolete) meaning ‘foreign’. Interestingly, the wal- of walnut has the same origin.


Er… no, I can’t think of any vegetable beginning with ‘x’. Sorry.


You might well be familiar with the yam – the edible starchy tuber of a climbing plant, also a North American term for the sweet potato. What you might not know is that, deriving via West Indian from some West African languages yam can also be a verb, meaning ‘to eat’.


Like eggplant vs. aubergine, this is an example of two nations being divided by a single language. While Americans tend to use the word zucchini, in Britain you’d be eating a courgette instead. Both words use the diminutive of the word for a gourd, in Italian (zucca) and French (courge) respectively. As with broccoli, in Italian zucchini is a plural form (of zucchino).

And there we have it! An alphabet of vegetables and vegetarianism to keep you and your friends amused during lulls in dinner table conversation. And who says that vegetarian food is bland? Linguistically, at least, I find it extremely interesting.

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