Sunday, 15 July 2012

Vegetable Discourse

We are advised to eat five portions of vegetables, and fruit, each and every single day. They come in several colours, an array of shapes, numerous sizes, and as children we seem engineered to loathe them.

However there must have been a time when someone picked, gathered or cropped the fruit or plant for eating. In order to pass on the information that such made good eating it was given a name. Of course there was no lavish celebration and cutting of a ceremonial ribbon, not even for those vegetables which have been cultivated to produce heavier crops, more appealing colours, and better flavours.

So why were the vegetables named and what, if anything, do they mean? Taking them in no particular order we start with the artichoke, said to be derived from Arabic al-kharshof meaning 'ground thorny', this derivation is simply another example of folk etymology and the true origins are unknown.

The bean is a general term for any plant where the plant forms its seed in a pod. Sometimes the whole pod is eaten, at other times just the seed as is the case of the broad bean which is thought to have been the original variety foraged by Eurasian hunter-gatherers and there is evidence of its cultivation in Thailand ten thousand years ago. That this is a such a simple word is a clue to its ancient origins, the early etymology is unknown, but almost certainly would have described it as simply 'seed' or that it was found in 'the pod'. The kidney bean, the most commonly eaten variety, clearly takes its addition from the shape of its seeds.

Known as 'grass' in the vales around the lower Severn where it is famously grown, the asparagus comes through Latin, Greek and ultimately Persian asparag an apt description of a plant which resembles a 'sprout, shoot'. Similarly broccoli comes from the plural of broccolo, the Italian for 'the flowering top of the cabbage' being of the same family. The cabbage itself is from a Northern French dialect term caboche meaning 'head', probably originally describing its shape and yet within living memory it was regualrly referred to as a 'head of cabbage'. The cauliflower, also related, is from Italian caoli-fiore or 'the flowered cabbage', for obvious reasons.

In North America it is referred to as the 'eggplant', because the earliest varieties known were white or yellow, in Britain it is the aubergine. The name comes from Catalan alberginia, through Arabic al-badinjan, Persian badin-gan, and Sanskrit vatimgana and is best translated from the scientific name of Solanum melongena, the reason it is known as the 'meloongen' in the Caribbean, and quite literally 'the plant that cures the wind'.

The carrot has also been . We can trace the evolution of the name through Middle French carotte, Latin carote, and Greek karoton to the Indo-European root ker meaning 'horn' and a description of the shape of the taproot. Although not appearing in Britain until long after the Norman Conquest, its use is known since the earliest farming times and was probably gathered much earlier. Note the original carrots were gathered for their leaves and seeds.

Celery was not seen in the English language before 1664. While it is the stalks which are sought today, the leaves bear a resemblance to parsley. The name can be traced to French celeri, Italian seleri, Latin selinon, and ultimately to Greek selinon which means 'parsley'. Clearly there was some confusion between the similar leaves of the plants in the earliest days. Chives are members of the family of onions and derive their name from the French cive and ultimately the Latin cepa, meaning 'onion'.

The courgette is treated as a vegetable but is strictly a fruit. The plant is a member of the squash family and gets its name French courge meaning 'little squash'. Note the American preference for zucchini is simply the Italian and means the same.

Endive can be traced back through Latin ediva, Greek entubioi, both of which mean 'chicory' to which it closely related, and ultimately from Egyptian tybi the eqivalent of 'January' and suggesting it was an important time in the growing of this plant.

Gherkins are effectively small cucumbers, although today each is cultivated quite separately, their name comes from the evolution through Dutch agurkje, Low German agurke, Lithuanian agurkas, Polish ogurek, ultimately from Greek agouros 'youth' and understood as 'unripe'. Clearly the original pickled gherkin was a result of cropping immature cucumbers.

The modern name for the leek comes from Old English lece, however this was also the generic term for all vegetables. It should be realised that vegetables in Saxon England were very different to today, most of which would be considered wild and never seen to have any culinary uses today.

Lettuce is ultimately from Latin for 'milky stem' and referring to the white secretions when cut. Maize, a plant from the New World, has certainly been corrupted by both similar French and Spanish words, yet the origin is Taino mahiz meaning 'life-giving' and clearly a staple food for thousands of years. A mangelwurzel is similar to a beetroot but chiefly used for fodder, it comes from German mangel 'chard or beet' and wurzel 'root', hence the German for beetroot.

From the Gallo-Roman mussiro, a word still used to describe a white mask used in an old theatrical fom, comes the modern mushroom. Mustard refers to the plant, whose pungent seeds were crushed and mixed with wine to form the paste called mustard, the name also given to its colour. Here the name appears to come from Latin meaning 'new wine', hence product gave a name to plant which was earlier likely referred to as simply cress.

Soya has a similarly confusing etymology, where the English version is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of shoyu which referred to 'soya sauce'. While edamame is used in English to refer to a dish made from these beans, it is actually derived from the Japanese name of eda mame meaning 'the twig bean'.

The onion can be traced back through Middle English unyon Old French oignon, to Latin unio and meaning 'oneness' or 'unity', a reference to the concentric rings of the bulb. While the origin of the name of the turnip is lost is a series of corruptions, the North American name of rutabaga is a Swedish dialect term meaning 'baggy root'.

Parsnips were once thought to be a kind of turnip, hence the identical suffix, when it came from the French pasnaie and Latin pastinum a kind of fork. That other similar root vegetable, the swede, was so-called for its introduction from Sweden.

The pea is derived from Latin pisum and Greek pison, both of which mean simply 'pea' and thus it seems likely this is, like the bean' from a very early Indo-European root word of unknown yet simplistic beginnings. Pumpkin is a word from Old French pompom and ultimately derived from the Greek pepon meaning 'ripen'. Radish is a simple name with an even simpler meaning, it is from Latin radix or 'root'.

Shallot is a type of onion which can be traced back to Ashkelon, the Israeli city thought to be where the vegetable originated by the classical Greeks. Spinach has a long history but one not seen until 1530 in the English language. It arrived here via French epinard, Catalan espinac, Arabic asbinakh, and back to Persian aspanakh literally meaning 'green hand'.

The tomato, which of course is famously a fruit but will be included as it is used as if it were a vegetable, comes from South America where the Aztecs called it xitomatl meaning 'plump thing with a navel'. Other cultures from the Americas took this as tomatl from which we get the modern name. The scientific name is even more interesting, for the literal translation of lysopersicum is 'wolf peach'. As the tomato belongs to the nightshade family, and those plants are associated with German werewolf legends, this was considered an appropriate description.

Of course the most common vegetable in western Europe is the potato which comes from Spanish patata, itself from Taino batata 'the sweet potato' and Quechua papa 'potato'. Hence there has been confusion between the two historically, although today we generally use the term yam for the sweet variety, itself from Portuguese inhame meaning simply 'edible'. What is seen as a slang term 'spud' actually came from the tool used to dig them up the 'spade'. Other early descriptions for the potato, to distinguish it from the sweet or common potato, include Virginia potato, and even the bastard potato.

It strikes me as a pity we weren't treated to John-Boy on The Waltons asking one of his innumerable siblings to "pass the bastard potatoes". I'll leave you to write your own responses.

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