Thursday, 16 October 2008

De Factoid the Eleventh: the fruits (and vegetables) of labour...

On the average trip around a supermarket, farmers’ fair or greengrocers, one might not consider too deeply the different fruits and vegetables on display – or their countries of origin. When biting into an apple at lunch time or pretending to eat sprouts at Christmas, history is usually a subject left neglected. But it shouldn’t be. The grocery section of an average shop is a secret back-catalogue of trade, conquest, empire and occupation. This De Factoid considers a few.

The Nativity:

Nativity is a useful word to begin this section as one deals first with the truly native edibles of Britain. Both nativity and native are linked to the word nation (from whence we also get national, nationalists, nationality and nationalize) from Latin nātiōn(n-): which refers (as one may have gathered) to ‘breed’, ‘stock’ and the matter of ‘race’; further linking to the process of ‘birth’ with the word-element nat- giving English the word natal (‘birth’ – think: ‘post-natal depression’), the new-born term, neonate, ‘new birth’ and the Nativity Scene in the story of the birth of Christ. Race as a word carries three meanings (though two are now more prominent). Race in the sense of ‘running a race’ comes from Germanic origins (northern Europe) and referred originally to the rushing movement of running water. It is a fair assumption that the word was introduced to England from Scandinavia, and worked its way south from the north of the country (which is why it is pronounced with the northern short ‘a’ sound, reading ‘reis’ as oppose to the long southern ‘raas’) at a time when ‘race’ (as in ‘breed’) was a point of conflict with Viking invaders. The meaning of race now less often used is of the name of the root-piece of the spice ginger, where race comes ultimately from the Latin rādīce-/ radix (meaning ‘root’) from where we get the vegetable name radish (itself introduced to British plates and palates in the 14th century by the French). This may give us the origin of the collective noun race in the sense of a ‘breed’: in people being metaphorically ‘rooted’ in the same place (and indeed wine-buffs are known to talk of a ‘race’ of wine in reference to the flavouring characteristics of the soil). The fruits and vegetables we now enjoy are a process of the birth of nationhood, each flavouring our natives and native soil as they are conquered and in turn conquer.

Think of a fruit or vegetable that you consider typically British. If you suggested ‘apple’ or ‘strawberry’; ‘sprouts’, ‘tomato’, ‘carrot’ or ‘peas’; ‘leaks’, ‘onions’, ‘pear’, ‘plum’, ‘parsnip’ or ‘potato’ you would (along with a vast list of others) be quite wrong. Those indigenous (i.e. ‘native’, from Latin indigena, ‘native’ – corresponding to Greek -genēs from where we get genus and genital) fruits and veggies are but few: Blackberry, Blackcurrant, Blueberry, Broad beans, Crab Apple (those who said ‘apple’ get half marks), Raspberry, Redcurrant and Samphire. England was good for berries – an Anglo-Saxon word: beri(g)e – though had few enough that we could differentiate them by little more than colour. That is not to say that the names of the plants are ‘native’ though: raspberry may relate to the ‘scratchy’ hooks on its skin – think French rasper, ‘scratch’ suggesting the French may have given us the name post-1066, or ealier via monks from Anglo-Latin raspeium; current is French (ultimately from Latin); apple is Old-English (just about: see De Factoid the Fourth), but crab (apple) probably comes from Scandinavia again in skrabba, ‘wild apple’. Samphire comes from French, (herb de) Saint Pierre, ‘St. Peter’s Herb’.

So to take the list of wrong answers from above, we shall explore three: the apple, carrot and potato – considering where they come from, and who first brought them to Britain:

The Apple was introduced to Britain during the Roman period (AD 43-410) from the warmer climates of the Mediterranean, ultimately coming from further east. Crab-Apples were already native to Britain and northern-Europe, but with Rome came the sweet fruit that replaced the bitter crab-apple as a mainstay fruit. The apple has had quite a history in literature and myth and feature in Norse legends (where the Goddess Iðunn provides apples to the gods to give them eternal youth) and Greek myth (where a similar life giving apple was found in The Garden of the Hesperides). Later Christian tradition of the apple as the ‘forbidden fruit’ (which according to the Book of Genesis in the Bible – also from Greek: genēs – was eaten by Adam and Eve against God’s will thereby leading to the fall of man and his banishment from paradise) was likely to have been borrowed from Greek tradition by Renaissance painters. The ‘forbidden fruit’ is never claimed to be an apple in the Bible: the Greek for apple, melon (from where we get the name of the fruit melon) was also the word for fruit generally. It must be remembered that the English Bible (King James, Dewey Rhymes and others) came from the Latin translation (re-translated into Latin by Jerome in 382AD) of the Greek translation of the original works (though the Tyndale Bible comes straight from the Greek). That the Latin for ‘apple’ (singular, malus) and ‘evil’ (singular, malum: think malevolent) were so similar (and identical – mala – if talking about more than one), probably presented too artistic a flourish to pass up, and the un-named ‘forbidden fruit’ became the apple in the Christian eye. Apple of my eye as a phrase itself comes from a Bible translation, that of the Anglo-Saxon Bible (Deuteronomy 2:10 and Zechariah 2:8) where æppel mean ‘round’ or ‘ball’: hence something being the ‘apple’ of your eye being the centre or whole of ones vision. The word translate is Latin meaning to ‘carry across’. Its Greek cousin is metaphor.

The Carrot is another colourful example of change in translation: changing colour in its own ‘carrying across’ from Arabia to the Netherlands by European traders. The carrots of Holland are orange – a product of the minerals of Dutch soil – and were bred into prominence through their colourful patriotism to the House of Orange during the battles for Dutch independence against Spanish rule (1568-1648). In their desert-home of origin (thought to be modern day Afghanistan) the carrot – through a differing of base minerals in the soil – was purple. The purple carrot had made its way to England via the Romans, but the orange carrot came to England (and stayed) from Holland in the 17th Century, when William of Orange became King of England in 1689. The word carrot comes to English through Old French and Latin from Greek karōtón (which probably itself has an Arabic ‘root’).

Finally, the Potato: another ‘carrying across’. The word potato is from Spanish patata (now most readily recognized in Tapas bars) which itself comes from combining a Taino (the pre-Spanish colonisation natives of the Bahamas) word batata, ‘sweet potato’ and the Quechua (the official language of the Incas) word papa, ‘potato’ when the Spanish took control of most of South America. About a third of all food eaten today can be traced back to South America, including potatoes, the chilli and all types of peppers (see De Factoid the Eighth), the tomato, chocolate and tobacco (to name but a few). The potato was introduced into England by John Hawkins in 1563, only later being re-introduced by Sir Walter Raleigh (who is fabled to have introduced the veggie to Ireland). Hawkins is an interesting character in himself: another made famous (and infamous) for his ability to ‘carry across’. He was treasurer and eventual commander of the Royal Navy, helping to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588 (though that was, in fact, more down to the bad weather) and is widely acknowledged as the pioneer of the slave trade, as the first man to run the Triangular Trade (England to West-Africa; West-Africa to America; America to England) making a profit at every docking. Some scholars suggest he was also responsible for introducing tobacco to England (another piece accredited to Raleigh) since he mentions Ltobaccoj (meaning tobacco) in his 1564 journal. The Oxford English Dictionary also accredits his crew with the introduction of the word shark into English (possibly from the Mayan work xoc, ‘fish’ – spoken in Yucatan, Mexico) after they brought a specimen back for exhibition in London in 1569 – no doubt more marveled at than the sack of spuds. Spud as a name for potato is of unknown origin, though may be related to the digging instrument of the same name first quoted in the first English-Latin Dictionary: the Promptorium Parvulorum (1440).

Try saying that with a mouth full of veg...

De Factoid the Twelfth: coming soon


underOvr said...


You've said a mouthful; I thoroughly enjoyed the historical tour of the apple, carrot and potato.

Thanks bro...and keep the De Factoids coming.

Adam James Nall said...

Ha ha, very good. Glad you like it - I though they were three quite fruitful examples. Thanks for following.



Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

The "blogoracle" has done it again. Explain the etymology of that term...

Well done Adam, as usual thoroughly entertaining and informative.

I actually use the origin of the word chocolate being from choco atl (bitter water) in Aztec as an example to my students of the diversity of origins of the English language, and I refer to English as a "vira lata" of languages, a Portuguese term for a mongrel.

Your story of the carrot's colour was interesting, being an avid vege gardener, I have often wondered why some carrots have a purplish tinge around the carrot top, points to a genetic throw-back.


Adam James Nall said...

Hello (and thank you), Nat. Always pleased to get words like that as a response! Thanks for stopping by.



Also, I wonder how long it will take before dictionaries list: 'WoW (abrv. proper noun) World of Warcraft'...A friend of mine was showing me around the game yesterday and there is an entire language (or set of languages) developing. A book perhaps...A

Adam James Nall said...

Hi, AV. Glad you like it (and thanks for clicking the 'following' button)! I do love the word 'oracle' (a funny thing to say I suppose...) so I'm very pleased to see it used in this context (thank you!). Linked to 'orate' and 'oratory' - speech, the mouth etc. from Latin 'oraculum' (which also names a Medieval dream classification sub-sect by a very clever chap called Macrobius - really interesting if keen) from where the French get 'orare': 'speak', 'plead', 'pray'...

I enjoyed the info on chocolate - thank you - and 'vira lata'! I've always called English 'the bastard child of multiple conquests' (if you'll pardon the pun), so we are certainly on the same wave-length. Purple carrots are still about (they turn up in Britain in farmers' markets) so it needn’t be a 'throw-back'.

I've technically reached my monthly 'quota' (if you will) - having hoped to write 4 a month, but I suppose I owe the blog one from my hols last month, so De Factoid the Twelfth will surface soon enough.



kkii said...

1. If you want to read a neat essay on exotic/foreign fruits and veg read Roger Swain's "Editing Landscape", archives, Horticulture magazine a couple years back. It's cool. 2. You left a comment on my blog about Le Grand Derangement. What is that??? (Can you reply?)

Adam James Nall said...

Hello Kkii, thanks very much for the comment/info. I'll head across to your blog to explain.

Best and thanks for reading,


Brian said...

Haha, very nice write-up. Keep up the good work.


Adam James Nall said...

Thank you very much, Brian. Glad you enjoyed reading. A new piece should be finished today (schedule permitting).