Friday 1 May 2020

The Humming Bird, the Possum and the Egg Plant

Have you ever wondered how things get their names? What are the processes by which words are created or adapted for new ideas, objects, animals and plants, among other things? Probably, the three most common methods of naming novelties are: thinking of a new term to describe the new phenomenon; applying a known term to the new phenomenon; or, most simply, just taking a word from another language, either directly or through a long line of borrowing. I’ll explore each of these methods one by one.

I’ll start with the practice of coining a new term in your own language for a new discovery. There are various examples in various languages: French “pomme de terre”, literally “earth apple”, for “potato”; Italian “pomodoro”, literally “apple of gold” for “tomato”; and Afrikaans “aardvark”, literally “earth pig” for, well, “aardvark” (even though they’re not related to pigs at all). Here are two examples which can amply illustrate this way of naming novelties.

When English speakers first heard about a large, spiky-headed fruit growing on a bush in South America, they referred to it as a “pine apple”. In contrast, French adopted the word “nanas” from Tupi, a language of South America, which became “ananas” and then spread around Europe and the rest of the world. The Spanish, however, while adopting “ananas” also referred to the fruit as “piña”, “pinecone”, giving us that lovely rum cocktail and silly love song, while also giving English the excuse to extend the “pine” idea by adding “apple”. English could have adopted “ananas” as well, but eventually the apple of the pine won out. Interestingly, although the Portuguese in particular were in touch with Tupi in Brazil, they made “abacaxi” the word for the pineapple as opposed to “ananas”, even though the abacaxi is only one kind of pineapple, allegedly the tastiest.

Another American phenomenon which needed naming consisted of delightful, little, shiny, multicoloured birds, which flitted about, drinking nectar from flowers, while furiously beating their tiny wings. This is effectively a case of sound and vision (well, some of them are electric blue) – English took the sound, while Portuguese took the vision. We named them “humming birds”, which has a certain beauty to it, but the Portuguese went one step further in my opinion, naming them “beija-flor”, literally “kiss-flower”, one of the most beautifully poetic descriptions of a living being that you’ll ever come across. Most other languages have adopted the term “colibri”, which arrived from a Caribbean source via French, although French also coined “oiseau mouche”, literally “bird-fly”, a somewhat less attractive description.

Let’s move on to the second way of naming novelties, which is to use a term that already refers to something, and apply it to something else. First, we can consider the word “possum” shortened from “opossum”, which is the name of a number of species of small marsupial omnivores originating in the Americas. In fact, the name “opossum” comes from a Powhatan word meaning “white dog-like animal”. It was assimilated into English in the 17th C and was later taken to Australia with the English settlers. There, the settlers applied the name to various marsupial species that resembled the original opossums of the Americas, albeit not closely related. It’s an interesting case of a word adopted by a dominant language on one side of the world being transported and applied to a creature on the other side. As is often the case with words, the popular name became current in Australian English and even became a term of endearment used by female impersonators. It is, however, totally unrelated to the Latin “possum”, which means “I can”. There’s a "possum" joke in there somewhere.

My second example is that of the buffalo, or rather, the bison, in America. Zoologically speaking, there are two extant species of bison, the American and the European, which are fairly closely related but distinct. Going further back, about 10 million years, they split off from the buffalo of Asia and Africa, as well as other bovines, including cows. The word “buffalo” comes ultimately from Greek “boubalos”, “wild ox”, via Latin “bubalus” and either Spanish “búfalo" or Italian “bufalo". When American bison skins in the process of being cured were first seen by European settlers, it was assumed that they were buffalo skins. This naming became popular, and although the word “bison” (itself a Latinised version of a Germanic word) was applied to them in the late 18th C, it couldn’t dislodge the popular “buffalo” and remains rather technical in use. In any case, “Bison Bill” just doesn’t have the same ring.

Other obvious examples include: “puma”, often referred to as “mountain lion”, even though it’s not technically a lion; “barbary ape”, even though it’s a species of macaque monkey; “koala bear”, even though it’s completely unrelated to bears; and “sago palm”, even though it’s not a palm but a cycad. All of these examples show how terms are reapplied based on appearance, which is perfectly understandable when previously unseen phenomena emerge.

One interesting phenomenon, which is a sort of blending of the first two methods, is a term based on the place or supposed place of origin. These are quite numerous. “Peach” is derived from Greek “Persicon malon”. via Latin “Persicum malum”, Late Latin “pessica” and Old French “peche”. Originally, the Greeks though it came from Persia, although it actually originated in Northwest China, clearly passing through Persia on its way to Europe. Before paper became the standard medium for writing on, parchment was the norm. It was accepted by the Greeks that the practice of using cow leather for writing originated in the city of Pergamon in present day Turkey, so they called it “pergamenon”, which underwent a few changes to arrive at its modern form. One other example is that of lodestones. These are metallic stones which possess a magnetic charge. It’s said that they were abundant in the area of Magnesia on the Maeander on the Aegean coast of modern Turkey. The ancient Greek settlers there took the name of their area of origin, namely Magnesia in Northern Greece. The type of stone in question was called “magnes lithos” by the Greeks, which gives us “magnet”.

Words originating from places often undergo many changes on their way to other languages. The same is true of my last group, which is, perhaps, the most widespread: words taken directly from another language along with the novel discovery, often food. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire and the site of Mexico City, they asked about a certain fruit resembling a pear which they had seen. This fruit was called “ahuacatl” in Nahuatl, the local language. As can be expected, the Spanish found it difficult to pronounce this new word, but over time it changed to become “avocado”, which sounds suspiciously like the Spanish for lawyer, “abogado”. This is a common phenomenon with borrowing words – you make them sound more like your own language, even though they’re actually completely different. One other thing is that “ahuacatl” also meant “testicle”. I’m saying nothing more, except - 
enjoy your guacamole. 

Another foodstuff which is probably more common than any other is sugar. The word doesn’t look very English, but that’s partly because of its journey into English from French, but let’s start at the beginning. Originally, the word didn’t denote something sweet and it wasn’t something you’d freely put in your mouth, especially if you didn’t want to crunch your teeth to pieces. Sanskrit, the ancient literary language of Northern India, used the word “sarkara”, meaning “gravel, grit”, to describe the granules of the sweet stuff produced from a certain local cane. From Sanskrit, it travelled via Persian “shakar” to Arabic, which rendered it “sukkar”. Arabic supplied it to Spanish and Portuguese with the definite article attached – hence “azúcar” and “açúcar” respectively. Medieval Latin created “succarum”, which French duly took it in as “sucre”, passing it onto English. The strange pronunciation in English results from the pronunciation of “u“ in French, rendered as “yu” in English, so “syu” became “shu”. What’s more, the French form also had an alternative with “g”, so we took that on as well. It’s enough to make you grit your teeth.

The names of colours have all kinds of origins: “mauve” comes from the mallow plant, “vermillion” is the colour of crushed worms, “scarlet” comes from the colour of the fine Arabian cloth “siqillat” and “azure” stems from the Persian for lapis lazuli. The most interesting colour here, though, is the one from possibly the most popular fruit in the world. Sanskrit, yes, that language again, had the word “narangas”, which probably originated in a Dravidian language such as Tamil. It travelled west through Persian as “narang" into Arabic as “naranj”. It then entered Spanish as “naranja” and Portuguese as “laranja”. In French, it lost the initial “n” (alongside the change of the "a" to "o"), probably as a result of assimilating the “n” with the indefinite article “une”, so that “une norange” became “une orange”. Then English got it, firstly the fruit and later the colour “orange”. Funnily enough, the word wasn’t initially taken up by German speakers, who called the fruit “Apfelsine”, literally “Chinese apple”, though they caught up eventually.

The last item here is probably my favourite, not in terms of the food, though I’ll happily eat it, but in terms of the massive variations to its name. It originated in Asia, or possibly Africa, and spread out to be cultivated around the Mediterranean, especially by the Arabs. Again, the name originated in a Dravidian language and is evident in the Tamil word “varutunai”. It became “vatingana” in Sanskrit, producing the Hindi word “baingan”. It travelled into Persian as “badingan” and into Arabic as “badinjan”, or “al-badinjan”, with the definite article attached. Now the fun starts.

It arrived in Turkish as “patlican”, moving on into Bulgarian as “patladzhan” and Russian as “baklazhan”. It was adapted into Greek as “melitzana”, and then into Italian as “melanzana”, where it was altered under the influence of the Italian phrase, “mela insana”, “mad apple”. Greek also passed it on to Sicilian, Medieval Latin and French, where it ended up as “melanjan”. A fascinating upshot of this is that, in Trinidad and Tobago they use the word “melongene”, which came from French speakers when they controlled Trinidad, but later the indentured workers from India following slavery brought “baingan“ with them.

Don’t go away – we’re not finished yet. From Arabic, it arrived in Spain as both “berenjena” and “alberenjena”, and in Portugal as “beringela”, and also “bringella”. Those great seafarers, the Portuguese, then took it out and about, back to India as “brinjal”, into Malaya as “berinjala” and over to the Caribbean as “brinjalle”, leading to the folk etymology “brown-jolly”. So, what of English? Well, as usual, we get our new words largely via French. French took the Spanish “alberengena” and turned it into “aubergine”, which looked rather like “auberge”, the French for inn. We finally got it in Britain in the 17th C. However, in America and Australia they decided to use “eggplant”, based on a white version of the aubergine which, well, looked like an egg, taking us back to the first method.

The original word for “aubergine” is probably the mostly widely shared and modified term in history, and its story nicely illustrates how words change in pronunciation as they pass orally from one language to another, and the new speakers try to assimilate them into their speech system as well as they can. So, there we have it. Words can come from anywhere, and can travel anywhere, but that’s the fascination. We sometimes create new terms, adapt known terms or simply take on the term that comes with the novelty. You can always go out and find some more in English. They’re everywhere.

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