Feeling fruity: where do the names of fruits come from?
Fruits are an essential part of our diet and also of our language. Something we approve of may be a peach, a plum, top banana, or the apple of our eye. Someone we dislike is a bad apple, while a particularly difficult character can drive us bananas. We can show our disdain for someone by handing them a lemon, not giving a fig, giving them the rough end of the pineapple, or by blowing a raspberry. While the apple is seen as the key to healthy living – an apple a day keeps the doctor away – it also forms the basis of the names for many fruits. The Greek word for the apple, melos, is the origin of melon; its Latin equivalent appears in persicum malum ‘Persian apple’ – the source of English peach. The Romans also used pomum (ancestor of French pomme), found in the pomum granatum ‘many-seeded apple’ which gives us English pomegranate.
The word apple originates in the Old English æppel used by the Anglo-Saxons; related forms appear in all Germanic languages – compare German Apfel, Dutch appel and Swedish äpple. Apple also crops up in the name of fruits that are not apples, such as pineapple. Modelled on Latin pomum pini, pineapple was initially used to refer to the pine cone (as French pomme de pin still does); the resemblance of the fruit to the pine cone led to a change in meaning. Many languages instead use a word based upon Nanas (e.g. French ananas) – the name given to the fruit in the South American Indian language of Peru, where Europeans first encountered the plant. The 16th century love apple, a translation of the French pomme d’amour, was an alternative name for the tomato – a reference to the fruit’s supposed aphrodisiac properties. Modern English tomato originates in the Mexican tomatl; the change from tomate to tomato was probably triggered by comparison with potato (from Spanish patata) – a case of ‘you say tomatl, I say tomato’ perhaps. The 16th century mad apple, or raging apple, from French pomme de rage, was neither an apple nor a tomato, but an aubergine.
A number of fruits are types of berry, from Old English berige, used to refer to small roundish fruits without stones. Of the various compounds formed with berry, some describe colour – blackberry, blueberry – others, such as the loganberry, preserve the name of the horticulturalist who first cultivated them. Etymologists still puzzle over the first element of strawberry; it may refer either to the stalks or the yellow seed-like dots. The cran of cranberry probably derives from an association with the crane – gooseberry suggests a similarly mysterious connection with the goose – while the mul of mulberry derives from Latin morus, the name for the mulberry tree. The first element of raspberry originates in the obsolete raspis, a collective term for raspberries. Examples like these – where the first element relates to no independent English word – are known to linguists as cranberry morphemes.
The grape gets its name from a Germanic root meaning ‘hook’ – referring to the object used to harvest them. Raisin, the English term for a dried grape, is borrowed from the French word for grape, itself derived from Latin racemus ‘bunch of grapes’. The word currant originates in the French raisin de Corinthe ‘grape of Corinth’, since currants are the dried fruit prepared from a grape grown in the Levant. Although Old English had the word ciris, cherry was borrowed from the Northern French dialect word cherise (compare French cerise). The -s ending was mistakenly understood to be a plural, and consequently the singular cherry was formed.
Although it entered English from Spanish, apricot goes back to the Latin word praecox, meaning ‘early ripening’; this is also the root of precocious, used to describe children who are intellectually advanced for their age. The nectarine is from the adjectival form of nectar, now the sugary fluid secreted by flowers, but originally used in Greek and Roman mythology to refer to the drink of the gods. The food consumed by the Classical deities, known as ambrosia, is preserved in the French word framboise ‘raspberry’- from Latin fraga ambrosia ‘ambrosial strawberry’.
From further afield comes the orange, a borrowing from French that has its origins in the Arabic noranj; loss of the initial “n” occurred in French through assimilation with the “n” of the indefinite article un. Lemon is also ultimately of Arabic origin, although it entered English from the French limon, now only used of the lime (la lime) in French, which uses citron for lemon (the root of English citric). Tangerines are so-called because they originate in the Moroccan port of Tangier, while satsumas take their name from the Japanese province in the island of Kyushu. The mandarin orange gets its name from the similarity of the pale orange colour of the peel to the yellow silk robes worn by the senior members, or mandarins (from Hindi mantri ‘counsellor’), of the imperial Chinese civil service.