Carissa and Karanda.

I was looking up something else in Alan Davidson’s Penguin Companion to Food (see this post) when my eye was caught by an entry “Carissa and Karanda.” Both exotic-sounding words were unknown to me; the entry began:

two closely related fruits of which the former is indigenous to S. Africa and the latter to S. Asia. Carissa is a botanical as well as a common name, referring to the genus of thorny, fruiting shrubs to which both fruits belong.

It went on to say that carissa is also known as Natal plum and amantugula and is native to South Africa, while the karanda is cultivated in India and some parts of Southeast Asia and East Africa. Naturally, I wanted to know where the names came from; I wasn’t too surprised that neither was in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate or American Heritage, but I was surprised they weren’t in the Concise Oxford and astonished they weren’t in the OED. Fortunately, both are in the Third New International (score one for Merriam-Webster!); the entry for karanda sends the reader to their main entry, s.v. caraunda, where we learn that it’s Hindi, from Sanskrit karamardaka. Unfortunately, the etymology for carissa simply says NL (New Latin), but Google Books found Umberto Quattrocchi’s CRC World Dictionary of Plant Names, where I found:

In Sanskrit kryshina means dark blue or black, because of the ripe fruits; the shrub is called krishnaphala; in Malayam it is called karimulla, possibly from kari “dark, black” and mullu “thorny, thorns,” referring to the fruits and thorns […]

It’s not altogether clear what they’re suggesting about about the relation between the Sanskrit and Malayalam words or about how it came into English, but that’s all I’ve got.

Also, I regret to announce that the Forward‘s wonderful language columnist, Philologos, whom I’ve quoted more than once here, is calling it quits:

The person known as Philologos wished to remain anonymous to our readers, and through the years we have respected that request. Now we must respect another request — to retire from writing the column for the Forward.

So it is with sadness and a great deal of gratitude that we bid farewell to a valued member of the Forward family. The column that appears in this week’s edition will be the last. It’s been an epic run.

Pharewell, Phil (and thanks for the link, Paul)!


  1. OK, so the name of “krishnaphal” is not mythological but a reference to the fruit’s dark color. Not so the names of two fruits in the genus Annona; known as “sitaphal” (A. squamosa) & “ramphal” (A. reticulata) (after the Sita & Ram(a) protagonists of the Ramayana). In English they are called “custard-apple”, “sweetsop” & other names. See also

  2. Dmitry Prokofyev says:

    To add even more confusion, there is this totally unrelated plant Rhamnus frangula, or alder buckthorn, called “крушина” in Russian. Vasmer tells us however its name comes from the verb крушить (to smash, to shatter, or indeed to crush), to reflect its brittle wood, similarly to the frangula part of the Latin name.

  3. Krishna (Sanskrit: कृष्ण, Kṛṣṇa) meaning “black” or “dark”) is a deity, worshipped in Hinduism.

    Old Indic “Krsna” is cognate of Slavic *čьrnъ (Bulgarian: черен, Czech: černý, Old Church Slavonic: чрънъ, Polish: czarny, Russian: чёрный,Serbo-Croatian: crn) which also means black.

    The cognates also exist in several other Indo-European languages (Greek and Baltic).

    Existence of very similar forms in Dravidian (like Malayalam “kari”- black mentioned here), Altaic (Turkic qara, Mongolian xara) and Japanese “kuro” all meaning “black, dark” is used by certain people in Moscow as a proof of Nostratic theory.

  4. Doing an OED advanced search turns up three lemmata containing “carissa”, all of them updated to OED3:

    From Natal2:

    Natal plum n. the edible red plumlike fruit of Carissa macrocarpa (family Apocynaceae), a spiny evergreen shrub or small tree of south-eastern Africa, which bears white tubular fragrant flowers; the shrub itself. Also called amatungulu, num-num.

    From num-num

    Forms: 17, 19– nam-nam, 18 noem-noem, 18 noomnoom, 19– knum-knum, 19– num-num. [Note: The numbers are century years, so 17 means 1700-1799.]

    Etymology: Origin uncertain. Perhaps < Khoekhoe !num-!num (compare San !num berry), but this has not been traced in modern Khoekhoe.
    C. A. Smith suggests that the name is ‘seemingly onomatopoeic, suggestive of the sound made when expressing pleasure at the taste of the fruits’ (Common Names (1966) 352); compare nummy adj. and int.

    Chiefly S. Afr.

    Any of several, spiny, evergreen, southern African shrubs or small trees of the genus Carissa (family Apocynaceae), which have fragrant white flowers and include the Natal plum, C. grandiflora; (also) the edible red or purple fruit of a plant of this kind.

    From ouabaio:

    Etymology: < Somali waabayyo (also in form waabay) arrow poison. Compare French ouabaïo (1888 or earlier).

    An arrow poison made from any of several East African trees of the genus Acokanthera (family Apocynaceae), esp. A. ouabaio and A. schimperi. […] Any of the trees supplying this arrow poison.

    Apparently the relevant species of Carissa were moved to Acokanthera at some point, but Carissa continues to appear in the quotations, which of course cannot be changed.

  5. Trond Engen says:

    No. interj. nam(-nam) “mm, good!”

  6. Trond Engen says:

    And, of course, Birdie num num (crossing fingers that it’s a relevant clip).

  7. Yes, it’s sad to see Philologos go. I haven’t been reading him for 24 years, but it’s surely close to 20.

    For Hatterites whose Hebrew is up to snuff, Israeli language author, columnist and lexicographer Ruvik Rosenthal a bit more than a month ago launched Ruvik Rosenthal’s Language Arena, his own very handsome website. (There’s no English Wiki entry for him, but Google his name for interesting hits.)

    As His Hatness knows, I often send him links and articles about language. So too with Ruvik, whom I met a number of years ago at a lecture. I was honored when he asked if I would once a week send him a link to an interesting English-language item, along with a short teaser in Hebrew, which he would place on his new site at “Paul Ogden’s Corner,” the only section of the website not written by Ruvik or a guest author. In our interconnected world, some of those links I of course discover at The Hattery, gifts given by others that I’m delighted to pass on to Israeli readers who are most unlikely to otherwise encounter them.

  8. Stefan Holm says:

    In the history of Europe ideas and peoples have come and gone. Therefore I’ve since long been wondering about two exceptions: the Roma and Jewish communities. I can think of no other cultures not being more or less totally assimilated by the mainstream evolution (modern Scandinavians have little in common with the vikings). How come? What’s so special about these two minorities? As for the Roma I have no idea – how do they manage to survive, persecuted and always in the outskirts of society? Their contribution to western culture seems limited to the artistic field – like widely spread songs.

    As for the Jews I have a faint idea that medieval Jewish mysticism penetrating the soil of European renaissance and the enlightment turned up to be an extremely fruitful mixture. Daring to think ‘why not vice versa’ without abandoning science might have been the momentum behind idols of mine like Baruch Spinoza, Karl Marx and Albert Einstein (I can spare Sigmund Freud and Lev Trotsky).

    Maybe Judaism is the least fundamentalist one of the world religions (the state of Israel is another story), where with few exceptions everything seems to be a topic for debate and/or interpretation.

    That 1.3 billion Chinese can maintain (parts of) ideas 2500 years old doesn’t ‘Confuce’ me. But there has to be something special to explain about those so few in number Jews (and Roma).

  9. Trond Engen says:

    On the contrary, modern Western Jewry is “more or less totally assimilated by the mainstream evolution”. And, as you imply, they contributed significantly to it. That may have been different at times and places when arguments against the Jews and their failure to assimilate and their secret plot for world takeover were commonplace, much like arguments against Muslim communities today. But that’s essentially the work of an excluding majority rather than a secluding minority. And don’t we approach an answer to the Roma question too?

  10. David Marjanović says:

    How come? What’s so special about these two minorities?

    Well, for one thing, they’ve been excluded and persecuted so much.

  11. @Stefan Holm: In Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, James Carroll argues that the reason that Jews persisted in Europe, unlike most other religious minorities, was that the Christians in the Middle Ages chose to have Jews around for theological reasons–Jews were expected to remain until the second coming, so unlike groups considered pagan, they were merely persecuted, rather that forced to covert or perish. While there may be some truth to this narrative, it struck me as somewhat antisemitic (ironic in context), claiming that the Jewish religion persisted only because the Christians allowed it to.

  12. There are genetic studies which prove that the entire current population of Ashkenazi Jews is descended from only 300 individuals who lived somewhere in Germany in 14th century.

    That’s how many Jews the medieval Christians were willing to tolerate.

    PS. Sephardic Jews in Iberian peninsula were more numerous. But there too, the tolerance of Jewish minority was ended immediately after conquest of the last Muslim state in the peninsula.

  13. There are genetic studies which prove that the entire current population of Ashkenazi Jews is descended from only 300 individuals who lived somewhere in Germany in 14th century.

    That’s how many Jews the medieval Christians were willing to tolerate.

    Even if those genetic studies are accurate, the fact that modern Jews are descended from only 300 individuals obviously does not mean there were only 300 Jews in Germany.

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