May 29, 2012

Words of the Month - Vegetables

        Around here, Memorial Day weekend is the time when gardeners get the All Clear and Full Steam Ahead to plant out the veggies.  I planted my tomatoes this weekend, and prepared the bed for planting zucchini yesterday.  The peas, which I planted earlier, are blooming beautifully.  So it seems like a good month to put the spotlight on vegetable words.  Here are some Fun Facts about the names we call a few of our vegetable friends.

artichoke - English adapted this word from Italian, which borrowed it from Spanish, which got it from Arabic.  The artichoke (and its name) was introduced to England during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47).  By the way, the "Jerusalem" of Jerusalem artichokes has nothing to do with the city.  It was adapted by folk etymology from the Italian girasole, meaning "sunflower," since the Jerusalem artichoke is of the sunflower family.

carrot - This word comes from an Indo-European root (KER) meaning "horn."  It shares this root with such diverse horned things as hornets, unicorns, rhinoceroses and cornets.  And yes, it actually is distantly related to the carat measurement of gold, originally the weight of a carob bean from its horn-shaped pod.

corn - The word corn comes from the Germanic descendants of an Indo-European root (GREN-NO-), while from the Latin descendants of the same root comes grain.  The two words are synonyms in British English, but here in the US corn specifically refers to the maize family.  As for the word maize, English got it from Spanish, which got it from the Carib language of Haiti.

peas - The word, spelled pease, was originally singular and collective (like rice), as in "Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold."  But it sounded so much like a plural that by the middle of the seventeenth century speakers reinterpreted it that way, and invented a new singular form: pea, by back-formation.

squash - This word comes from Narraganset askutasquash meaning "green things eaten green or raw."  The -ash at the end was actually the plural suffix.  You can also see it in succotash, which comes from Narragansett for "ears of corn."
        And speaking of squash, that most rampant of summer squash, the zucchini, didn't join the language until around 1925!  It entered American English from Italian, while the British English speakers were about five years behind… and going with the French courgette instead.  The oldest English word for summer squash seems to be marrow.

tomato - English got this word from Spanish, which adapted it from Nahuatl.  Apparently an 1753 encyclopaedia said that tomatoes were eaten "by the Spaniards and Italians and by the Jew families of England," so it took a while to go mainstream among English speakers.  Now, in case you're thinking of quibbling that tomatoes aren't really vegetables, that may be true botanically, but it isn't true legally.  In 1893 the US Supreme Court ruled that since tomatoes are usually eaten with the main course, they count as vegetables.





[Picture: Squash Blossom, rubber block print by AEGN, 2006;
Tomato vine, colored pencil on paper from Kate and Sam and the Chipmunks of Doom by AEGN, 2009.]

1 comment:

  1. I remember hearing about a student worker in the dining room at Yale years ago, Calhoun College I think, who was called the Vegetable Lady. As she served vegetables to the waiting students she told them factoids about the vegetable of the day. That is what I call seizing the opportunity for a teaching moment. This blog sounds a bit like that.

    The Aging Wordsmith

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