Word of Mouth: A is for... apricot, asparagus and avocado
Today we're doing something a little different. We're going to explore the history of words - food words to be precise. We in the business call this eatymology.
The apricot has grown wild in China for millennia and has been cultivated there, as well as in Central Asia, for about 4,000 years. Being tasty (and believed to increase female fertility), it probably travelled from China to the Near East via the Silk Road. Legend has it that Alexander the Great brought it to Europe in the fourth century BCE.
For those of you who didn’t see Call Me By Your Name (homophobes), let me teach you about apricot’s etymology. The earliest Latin name was Prunum armeniacum, or ‘Armenian plum’, a reference to the commonly held belief that apricots came from Armenia. The Romans also called apricots praecocoum, meaning ‘the precocious one’, because these bright little fruits ripened in early summer, before the plum or peach.
Byzantine Greek adopted this word as berikokken, which eventually made its way into Arabic as birqūq. The Moors introduced this moniker into Spain, along with al (‘the’), from which the Spanish word albaricoque went on to influence other European languages.
In 1542, the apricot travelled from Italy to England when Jean Le Loup, Henry VIII’s gardener, planted them at Hampton Court Palace. It might be from the Italian albercocco that the early English abrecock sprung from. This quickly developed, adopting the French -cot (from abricot), while the change from abri- to apri- might be have been due to a simple mistake, when in 1617 the lexicographer John Minsheu incorrectly linked the fruit’s etymology to the Latin apricus, meaning ‘sunny’.
Asparagus is native to the Mediterranean, where wild varieties have been harvested for thousands of years. Evidence suggests it was first cultivated in ancient Rome. Cato gave detailed instructions for growing it, while Hippocrates and Galen praised the vegetable for its medicinal properties (coupled with cumin it could, apparently, help ease flatulence).
The exact of origins of the word ‘asparagus’ are unknown. It might have come from the Persian asparag, meaning ‘a sprout’, though some maintain it first appeared as the ancient Greek apáragos. Either way, it’s from the Greek we get the Latin term asparagus, which is, in fact, the word we use today. But the etymological tale doesn’t end there.
The Latin asparagus was eventually abbreviated to sparagus, which was the origin of the Anglicised versions, sparage and sperage, which were both used in the 16th and 17th centuries. But around 1600, the original asparagus became common once again, which in turn was abbreviated to sparagus (again). By 1650 another transformation had taken place; sparagus became sparrowgrass.
Sparrowgrass may have begun life as a ‘casual witticism’, but it was soon fully part of the lexicon. In 1791, the English lexicographer John Walker, commented. ‘The corruption of the word into sparrowgrass is so general that asparagus has an air of stiffness and pedantry’.
During the 19th century, linguistics turned on sparrowgrass, reverting back to the Latinasparagus. In 1885, the New English Dictionary proclaimed sparrowgrass as ‘dialect or vulgar’. Today it lives on only within the world of greengrocers, who refer to ‘asparagus’ as ‘grass’.
Avocados are berries (yep, berries) that are native to Mexico and Central America. They’ve been eaten by humans for about 12,000 years and cultivated for around 7,000 years.
The name ‘avocado’ comes from the word āhuacatl, from Nahuatl, a language spoken by the Nahua people of Mexico and El Salvador. In the Nahuatl language, āhuacatl was also slang for ‘testicle’, in reference to the shape of the fruit. (Sadly ‘guacamole’ doesn’t directly translate to ‘testicle sauce’, a common misconception.)
The Spanish came across both the fruit and the word when they reached the New World. They didn’t take to the original name, replacing it with a similar sounding word aguacate, which in Spanish means ‘lawyer’.
English speakers in the 18th century struggled with this new rendering, changing it toavigato. But even this was too much for the xenoglossophobic English. Avigato or avigatopear, as it was also known, eventually became ‘alligator pear’ - perhaps inspired by the similarity between the fruit and reptile’s skin.
In 1915, a group of Californian farmers got together to discuss the potential of a new crop - the alligator pear. They found the name unappealing so came up with a new variation on the original; ‘avocado’. According to a short article that appeared in the Pacific Rural Press that same year, this new name was ‘nearer the original in spelling and gives us the same pronunciation as the inhabitants of the countries in which the fruit is now of such importance as a food.’