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April, 2011

Many of the words that we use for fresh produce items today have been passed from country to country and culture to culture for centuries; each lending a particular sound, description or sometimes even a local myth, to a word’s provenance.

In doing research for this feature it was fascinating to discover that two cultures that were supposedly unaware of the other’s existence, like the Chinese and Aztecs, share similar words for the same fresh fruit. Perhaps the word globalization is not such a modern concept after all!

Apple
Beyond being alphabetically first, this word takes top billing because it is at the root of several other fruit. In fact, it was not until Christianity was officially adopted by the Roman Empire in the 4th Century that the Latin term for all fruits, pomum, began to be used to for the apple exclusively. This distinction was due to the important symbolism of the apple in the bible that upgraded it to "the fruit of all fruits." As for the actual English word apple, most European languages use a very similar word. For example: aballo (Celtic), apfel (German), abhal (Irish Gaelic), afal (Welsh) and aeppel (Old English). So it was not much of a leap to the Modern English version, apple. Interestingly the French town of Avallon is in the middle of an apple growing region and the name refers to an ancient legend of a sacred island called Abalon, meaning "apple orchard" (the symbol of an abundant paradise). The "on" at the end of this word means “increasing” or “large”. Thus, the shellfish Abalone was named because of its resemblance to a “big apple”. Just a little factoid to keep any New York egos in check!

Apricots
In its homeland of Persia, the Arabic word for this fruit was al birquq, which means "early-ripe" referring to its spring harvest. When Roman legionaries were pillaging their way through the Near East in the first century, they called this delicacy an aperitum, meaning "fruit which opens easily”. Over the centuries the sounds of both these words have been merged into one. Avocadoes From the Aztec awa guatl meaning “testicle tree” and I will leave it at that!

Banana
This time it was Arabian slave traders pillaging their way through Africa who gave this fruit its name. Back then bananas were nowhere near the length found in today’s marketplace; instead, they were about the size of a finger. Hence the name banan, which is the Arabic word for “finger”.

Cantaloupe
There are pictures of this very recognizable melon on the walls of Egyptian tombs and, again, those entrepreneurial Arab traders spread the seeds of this fruit throughout the Near East. However, in the sixteenth century some of those seeds make their way from Armenia to the Papal gardens in the city of Cantalupo, Italy. Though the melon has a history that precedes that crop by thousands of years, the name stuck. Obviously the Italian city employed an aggressive PR person; else this fruit might have been called a Cairo melon!

Cherimoya
The name originates from the Aztec word hirimuya, which means "cold seeds" because the large seeds of this fruit could be planted successfully at very high altitudes in the Andes Mountain Range.

Coconut
Based on the Spanish and Portuguese word coco, which means "monkey face". Early explorers found a resemblance to a monkey's face in the three round indented markings or eyes found at one end of the coconut.

Fig
From the Latin fica meaning “vulva” and, again, I will leave it at that!

Lemon & Limes
Both these words have very ancient roots in the Chinese term for citrus limung. However, the English word lemon probably came from the Arabic word limun. This word made its way into Old French as limon, which became lymon in 15th century Old English. The modern English simply swapped out the “y” for an “e”, then added a jigger of gin and some tonic! The word lime first entered English in the 17th century; the Spanish borrowed it from the Aztecs, who called the fruit lima. The capital city of modern-day Peru, Lima, was founded by the Spaniards and named after the fruit.

Orange
The word has evolved out of a phrase coined in an ancient fable demonstrating the evils of gluttony. That Sanskrit phrase was naga ranga, which meant “fatal indigestion for elephants”. The story goes that one day an elephant found a tree heavy with the weight of beautiful, but unfamiliar, orange fruit. Not being able to help himself, the elephant ate so many that he actually burst. Many years later a man discovered the remains of the elephant skeleton with many orange trees growing from the animal’s stomach area. The man exclaimed, "Amazing! This fruit is naga ranga!” [fatal indigestion for elephants] The Spanish twisted this phonetically into naranja; while the French and English actually agreed on something, that being the word orange.

Passion Fruit
Don’t get excited, the name was christened by the clergy who accompanied the first Spanish explorers to South America. They saw the fruit’s brilliant flower as a symbol of Christ’s crucifixion, sometimes referred to as The Passion of the Cross. The beautiful corona threads of the Passion Flower were seen as the crown of thorns, the five stamens were wounds, the five petals and five sepals represented the ten apostles (excluding Judas and Peter) and the three stigmas symbolized the nails of the cross.

Peach
When the peach first made its way to the Roman Empire from Persia, it was called malum persicum (Persian apple). Over time, the Italians first whittled this down to just persicum and then even shorter to pesca. In France it was called peche; so the English came up with peach rather than use anything French.

Persimmon
A real native son (or daughter) whose name derived from pasiminan used by the Delaware and Cree Indians for the fruit. The word meant "dried fruit", which is how the early American Indians usually prepared it. The famous English explorer, John Smith, brought some back to England for Queen Elizabeth but spelled the word phonetically as pashimin. Modern English continued the evolution and settled on near cousin of Smith’s word.

Pineapple
One of the first “discoveries” made by Columbus in 1493 when he landed in the New World. The Spanish thought this new fruit resembled a pine cone, so named it pinya. In fact, the fruit was often just called a pine when it was first introduced into Britain. The “apple” addition seems to have roots in the ancient generic term used for all fruit [see apple] as in pine fruit.

Pomegranate
Another one based on the ancient definition of apple (fruit). The Romans called it, pomum granatum meaning “fruit of many seeds” that, in Old French, was pome grenate or “seedy fruit”. By the middle of the seventeenth century modern French shortened this to grenade. The English borrowed the word to describe a small, round device that was tossed into enemy trenches where its “seeds” of death exploded into bits of shrapnel.

Strawberry
Because of the damp climates typically found in Great Britain and Ireland, it was necessary that a layer of straw be placed around this crop to keep the fruit off the soil. Hence, the original two-word term, straw berry!
Tomato
The Spanish commandeered the Aztec word, tomatl, which they repackaged it as tomate to all of Europe. Even Italy must credit the Spanish for its tomato-based cuisine. The fruit was first introduced into Italy in the sixteenth century via Naples, which was a Spanish possession from 1516-1556. The Italians did try to get creative by calling it pomo de oro or "golden apple”. That one did not catch on, but it sure sounds like the work of our friend the PR man from Cantalupo!