People can be as creative with their stories about the origins of words as they can with various ways to prepare food. Here are just a few examples.
Because asparagus has also been called sparrow-grass, the false notion has arisen that sparrows used to loiter in the asparagus bed, thus the name. Actually, the word came to English in the 1500s from Greek (asparagos), & within the next two centuries it was eclipsed in popular usage by two colloquialisms: sparrow-grass & sparagrass. During this whole time, botanists held onto the original word. Darned if those botanists didn’t win out in the end, when Victorian England’s fascination for properness found sparrow-grass to be unpleasantly common-sounding, so asparagus was reborn. Interestingly, some die-hard British cookbook authors continue to refer to asparagus as grass.
Marmalade’s true ancestry starts in Greece, where a melimelon was the fruit that occurred when an apple was grafted onto a quince tree. The term translates to honey apple. Melimelon made its way through Portuguese and French to become marmalade in English, referring to preserves made from boiling fruit(s). Even though the term entered English in 1524, nearly 20 years before Mary Queen of Scots’ birth, some insist that the word marmalade was born as servants scuttled about trying to answer the ill Queen Mary’s demands for fruit preserves, whispering to one another, Marie malade (Mary sick).
Word had it back in the 1970s that gorp (a trail mix of peanuts, raisins, dried fruits and such) stood for Good Old Raisins & Peanuts. I remember hearing this explanation myself while, dwarfed by my CampTrails backpack, I plodded along some trail . Etymologists refer to this sort of invention as a backronym. In fact, gorp probably comes from some collection of gulp, gorge, gobble &/or gorge. There’s also the possibility that it came about as a back-formation of gorper, which was an American term used in the 1950s meaning glutton or gulper.
The name artichoke has inspired many a tale of choking caused by undercooked artichokes. These stories make some sense; after all, who came up with the idea that we could boil a thistle for 40 minutes & then eat it? In fact, the word artichoke entered English in the 1500s from the Italian term articiocco. The Italians got the word from Arabic, & simply couldn’t pronounce al-harshuf well enough for it to look or sound much like its former self.
Which of these faux etymologies had you previously heard? Please leave a comment.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Hugh Rawson’s Devious Derivations, OED, Etymonline, & Wordnik
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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