THE MULTIFARIOUS AUBERGINE.

By popular demand (in this thread), I am discussing the various words for ‘eggplant’ (Solanum melongena, a comestible with a far wider variety of shapes and colors than most of us are aware of—there’s a very nice photograph of “a smorgasboard of eggplants” here). The word eggplant itself is the odd man out here (and odd it is, too, until you see the variety it must originally have referred to: scroll most of the way down this page for a dramatic photograph of what do indeed look exactly like eggs with green stems); the English word that will start us on our voyage is aubergine. This is, as you might guess, borrowed from French; the French word is from Catalan albergínia, which is from Arabic al-bādinjān (with the definite article al-), itself borrowed from Persian bādingān, which is probably from Middle Indo-Aryan *vātiñjana-, vātingana-; most sources attribute the latter form to Sanskrit, but I don’t find it in my dictionaries.
The Arabic word is the source also of Spanish berenjena, which the Italians (assimilating it to mela ‘apple’) borrowed as melanzana, which they then folk-etymologized as mela insana ‘mad apple’; Hobson-Jobson, in its usual discursive fashion, says:

The Ital. mela insana is the most curious of these corruptions, framed by the usual effort after meaning, and connecting itself with the somewhat indigestible reputation of the vegetable as it is eaten in Italy, which is a fact. When cholera is abroad it is considered (e.g. in Sicily) to be an act of folly to eat the melanzana. There is, however, behind this, some notion (exemplified in the quotation from Lane’s Mod. Egypt. below) connecting the badinjān with madness. [Burton, Ar. Nights, iii. 417.] And it would seem that the old Arab medical writers give it a bad character as an article of diet. Thus Avicenna says the badinjān generates melancholy and obstructions. To the N. O. Solanaceae many poisonous plants belong.

This is under the heading brinjaul, a form now spelled brinjal, of which the OED (which classifies it as “Anglo-Indian”) says: “Few names even of plants exemplify so fully the changes to which a foreign and unintelligible word is liable under the influence of popular etymology and form-association… The Malay berinjalā, prob. from Pg., illustrates the Anglo-Indian form… In the West Indies brinjalle has been further corrupted to brown-jolly.” The Portuguese form referred to is spelled beringela in Portugal and berinjela in Brazil; Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) has both berengena and merengena (the former used among the Istanbul Sephardic community according to my dictionary); and the Neapolitans, idiosyncratic as usual, borrowed the Arabic as mulignana.


Greek μελιτζάνα [melitzána] and Slovene melancána are borrowed from Italian, but most other Eastern European words come from Turkish patlıcan (itself an eccentric borrowing from Arabic): Greek Romany patlidžáno (plural patlidzéa), Albanian patëllxhan, Serbo-Croatian patlidžan, Hungarian padlizsán, Polish bakłażan (there’s also oberżyna, presumably from German Aubergine, which is obviously from French), Russian баклажан [baklazhán]. The Yiddish word is patlezhán; perhaps one of my Yiddish-scholar readers can tell me what the immediate source is, but it’s clearly in this group.
Other forms: Swahili bilingani, Malagasy baranjely, Somali birinjal (according to this page) or bidingal (according to my dictionary)… oh, and a local descendent of the Middle Indic forms, Hindi/Urdu bai(n)gan, is the source of the West Indian form baigan (current in Guyana and Trinidad).
You can see still more eggplant words (of all origins) here.
Whew. Let the additions and corrections begin!

Comments

  1. In my Hebrew class, our textbook, around chapter 8, introduced one word for food: eggplant (xatzil). The rest of the food words showed up about 10 chapters later. It was anomalous, and eggplant continues to be one of my favourite Hebrew words.

  2. Exactly why I read you.
    I’ve been saying bādinjān (pronounced in our family “beitinjune”) – the Arabic – for years but never put it together with the “al-” as a source for aubergine until I read this. Fascinating post! Thanks.

  3. Charles Perry says:

    The reputation for madness may have originated in India because of a folk etymology connecting vatingana with the word for wind, which is associated with madness in India as the moon is in Europe.
    In any case, Arab doctors warned their patients that eggplant would cause madness, cancer, freckles and hoarseness, among other evils (European doctors would later say the same), but the man in the street didn’t necessarily pay attention. The 9th-century poet Kushajam wrote:
    “The doctor makes ignorant fun of me for loving eggplant, but I will not give it up.
    “Its flavor is like the saliva generously exchanged by lovers in kissing.”
    That may be the only racy poem ever written about eggplant.
    Even today, the Touaregs say that if you eat eggplant daily for 40 days you will go insane, and they cite the case of a scoffer who tried it and at the end of the emerged from his tent crying, “I’ve been eating eggplant for 40 days and now I’m insane!” QED.

  4. Han Ah Reum in Catonsville (SW corner of U.S. 40 and Rolling Road), is alleged to be the largest Asian grocery in the world: I’ve always assumed this means the largest outside of Asia. It always has five varieties in stock, including the long skinny purple ones and the little round green and white ones. I’ve forgotten know which is the Italian eggplant, which the Thai, and so on, but anyone in the Baltimore area could easily get five kinds there, and I am not talking about mere color varieties like the white or streaked varieties that sometimes turn up in ordinary groceries.

  5. The Eastern Armenian is [patəldʒan].

  6. Here’s the Anglo-Finno-Russian-Scandinavian food glossary. Which includes the various words for eggplant. The icelandic word, eggaldin, means, literally, eggfruit.

  7. Thanks, that was great! That is one looong word-borrowing chain. Does anyone know any that are longer? (excluding morphemes that just get passed down a language family, obviously)
    Entirely unrelated addition: the Japanese is “nasu” (may refer to a slightly variant plant) which was originally “nasubi” but got shortened somewhere along the line, possibly by Heian court ladies.
    The most popular etymology is that nasubi was a variant on “natsu + mi” (summer fruit), and the word is indeed usable as a “summer” season word in formal haiku. Other proposed etymologies include “nasu + mi” (fruit that grows) and “nashi + mi” (pear fruit).
    Bonus information: There is a related plant, a kind of nettle I think, called “warunasubi” (bad nasubi) or “oninasubi” (ogre [oni] nasubi) because it is thorny and stubborn and not useful to humans, IIRC.

  8. As far as long borrowing chains go, orange gives aubergine a run for its money — Middle English from Middle French from Old Provencal from Old Italian from Arabic from Persian from Sanskrit. Or something like that.

  9. michael farris says:

    The Spanish word is normally spelled berenjena.

  10. Russian has a way around this — a colloquial synonym for баклажаны, coming from Ukraine and Southern Russia as I understand, is синенькие (“little blue ones”).

  11. A west Indian dish of fried aubergines is gemerally spelled “bal and gen”.

  12. Yes, Ukrainians call them синенькие (“little dark blue things”) as do some Russians. They also describe their color as dark blue (синий) and not purple. In Egypt during late summer-early fall they were small, dense and rather wrinkled, took much longer to cook, and had a stronger flavor. I assumed that was the variety that could withstand 60+ degrees C.

  13. Hi, thanks to your link to my site (Vocabolario Etimologico della Lingua Italiana) I discovered your blog, that will become a regular reading.
    Just a word about the italian melanzana.
    The alternative form “petonciano” is almost unknown in Italy, but up to a 100 years was the more common form.
    Pellegrino Artusi’s cookbook, the most famous italian cookbook and still often reprinted, was published at the end of XIXth century and uses the form “petonciano”, with the result that today’s reader often do not understand what the book speaks about!

  14. Gag Halfrunt says:

    For some reason the Plant Names Database page doesn’t have aubergine as a name in English. We call them aubergines here in Britain and it was a long time after I came across eggplant that I actually learned what it meant.

  15. in romanian the name is pătlăgică vânătă(lit. dark blue pătlăgică)but usually just vânătă.
    P.S. the tomato is pătlăgică roşie(red pătlăgică) again usually just roşie

  16. Just to give folks a taste of the morphological delights of Romanian, the plural of vânătă is vinete (both stressed on the first syllable).
    michael: You’re right, and I’ll fix it; I took the old spelling from an old source. Normally I’d double-check everything in a post, but in this case… you understand…

  17. michael farris says:

    The Polish name is bakłażan but the plant itself is rare (only available at all for about 10 years now).

  18. michael farris says:

    For Spanish, my dictionary also has berenjenal as an alternate (masc. while berenjena is feminine) and I would assume there are some regional names floating about.
    I like the spelling with g better, it looks more spanish somehow (phonologically it’s weird I think, I’m suprised it hasn’t gotten reduced to something like berejena which is easier to say).

  19. “Tres cosas me tienen preso
    de amores el corazón,
    la bella Inés, el jamón
    y berenjenas con queso.”
    http://users.ipfw.edu/jehle/poesia/trescosa.htm
    by Baltasar del Alcazar

  20. In Moldova in everyday speech they say pătlăgică(pl. pătlăgele) for tomato and use a russian word for eggplant.

  21. “in romanian the name is pătlăgică vânătă(lit. dark blue pătlăgică)but usually just vânătă.
    P.S. the tomato is pătlăgică roşie(red pătlăgică) again usually just roşie ”
    That mirrors Mandarin. ‘qie2zi is eggplant and tomatoes are ‘fan1qie2″ – foreign eggplants.
    ‘Rice’has a fairly twisted history too.
    I bet there were similar twisted borrowing chains in North America around words like ‘cat’ and ‘pussy’.

  22. Jim:
    Pussy

  23. In Australia, we call them eggplants. The Croatian name is patlidzan (the z should have a hachek on it).
    Cheers

  24. In Kannada, brinjal is Badh-ney-ka-yi. (Ka-yi is the generic term for nut)

  25. Bengali has beigun or baigun.

  26. John,
    Thanks for that. I hadn’t known that “puss” was a slang term for hares. That’s the connection for that part of the meaning – hare = rabbit = coney > cunny.
    But I meant the cat end of the word. Mary Haas once used a borrowed form from some language in northern California or southern Oregon as an example of how hard it can be to recognize a loanword even when it comes form your own language. In that gaining language the way you form a diminutive is to glottalize the intial consonant, front the vowel, palatalize the final vowel and reduplicate the syllable, so you get puss > p’ishp’ish. We were all convinced and edified by this example.

  27. In Yiddish פּאַטלעזשאַן (patlezhan).

  28. In Slovene, “jajčevec” is also very common, perhaps even moreso than the borrowing “malancan” (no “a” at the end). “Jajce” means egg, so “eggplant” may not entirely be the odd man out, but I don’t know the word’s etymology. BTW, “-evec” is a common noun ending.

  29. I just checked and “malancana” is a correct alternative form of “malancan.” I’ve never heard it used, so I suspect it’s a regional variation, at least to a certain degree. I prefer “jajčevec” anyway.

  30. Dusan Vukotic says:

    In Serbian “patlidžan”. As we can see, almost all the names mentioned above have the suffix “gon” (džan, djan, žan etc.). Obviosly, it is connected with the “movement” (go, Germ. gehen, Serb. goniti…).
    It seems, if we want to go any further in our explanation we have to understand why such a suffix is used here at all.

  31. We called them brinjals in South Africa, aubergines in the UK.

  32. We called them brinjals in South Africa, aubergines in the UK.

  33. Peter Desmond posted a delicious translation on Baltazar del Alcazar poem in Apres moi,
    My Three Loves
    (by Baltasar del Alcazar)
    Only three things hold my heart
    love-captive in a prison vault:
    gorgeous Betty, Spanish ham,
    and eggplant roasted au gratin.
    Betty, guys, knew what to do
    to rob me of the slightest clue.
    I held as hateful and as petty
    everything that wasn’t Betty.
    I spent a year without a hunch
    until one day she served me lunch
    consisting of some Spanish ham
    and eggplant roastedau gratin.
    Betty was the first to score,
    but I’m not certain any more
    which of them happens to control
    the battlefield that is my soul.
    In taste, in measure, and in weight
    I think the three of them are great!
    Now I want Betty, now it’s ham,
    now it’s eggplant au gratin.
    Betty’s beauty can’t be beat,
    but Aracena’s ham is sweet;
    and ancient chronicles attest
    that Spaniards loved their eggplant best.
    And, so in balance are the three
    that, judging quite impartially,
    all are equal: Betty, ham,
    and eggplant roasted au gratin.
    At very least, my new-found squeezes
    (ham, and eggplant drenched in cheeses)
    may induce my Bettykins
    to charge less money for our sins.
    For she will find as counterweight,
    if she fails to negotiate,
    a generous slice of Spanish ham
    and eggplant roasted au gratin.
    (translated by Peter H. Desmond)
    8/04/2005 10:23:57 AM
    Diccionario de la Real Academia Española: Del ár. hisp. baḏinǧána, este del ár. clás. bāḏinǧānah, y este del persa bātingān
    El Rey, señor de Fugena, *
    la cadena
    vos eche que mereçedes,
    pues tenedes
    los ojos de berengena;
    de Purchena * a Camarena, *
    de Taraçena * a Carmena *
    vos fagan luego trocar
    e folgar
    en la nao so el antena.
    AÑO: 1406 – a 1435
    AUTOR: Baena, Juan Alfonso de
    TÍTULO: Poesías [Cancionero de Baena]
    CORDE

  34. That’s utterly delightful!

  35. I recall hearing that the Arabic derives from “baida”, egg, and “jan”, demon, djinn: i.e. “devil’s egg”. The etymology is very appealing (as is the vegetable), but I don’t know if the Arabic permits it.

  36. The Arabic word is from Persian, as I said above. Folk etymology is a popular sport the world over.

  37. http://www.whimsyspeaks.com/archives/2004/12/
    Scroll down to Dec 26 for a review of The Aubergine Anthology. All of the poems end on that word, in playful response to a comment in The New Yorker that “you can’t end a poem with ‘aubergine’ .”
    m.

  38. thank you for the nice comments on my poem!
    while i’m sure it would be harmful to my career to be known as a one-vegetable poet, i thought i would post here a work which was recited in public this last Bastille Day in a happier New Orleans, at a celebration of the aubergine, which was sponsored by a local farmers’ market.
    it is one of six works that survived the scrutiny of the editorial committee. i’m sorry to have missed the event, which featured both a cooking lesson (eggplant recipes, natch) and a parade of french poodles.
    i enjoy following this blog.
    peter desmond
    Auberdoing It
    Longfellow’s “Evangeline”
    doesn’t mention aubergines.
    When Baudelaire first published “Spleen”
    he too forgot the aubergine.
    Not one ballet by Balanchine
    contains a single aubergine!
    Even Esquire magazine
    neglects the shapely aubergine.
    Wagner was a Philistine –
    his operas shun aubergines.
    Elizabeth, the virgin queen,
    never dined on aubergines.
    I hiked the Upper Engadine
    and did not find one aubergine.
    In Rome, the Vatican’s Sistine
    Chapel boasts no aubergines.
    Though Aristotle’s Golden Mean
    should guide our use of aubergines,
    when I returned to New Orleans,
    I gorged all night on aubergines.
    For colds, take antihistamines.
    For everything else, eat aubergines.

  39. The Yiddish word for eggplant, patlezshan, could be from Turkish as well. MMarvin (Mikhl) Herzog wrote in Mendele:
    Turkish origin words in Yiddish,derived either direc at some appropriate period in history or, perhaps via Ukrainian, should no surprise. As prestigious a word as “yarmulke” and “lehavdil” (and, perhaps, as notorious a word as “pots”, are likely of Turkish origin.
    Mikhl Herzog

  40. Peter! Nice reading you here!
    Wow…I’m astonished by the french poodle parade :)

  41. The first stanza of the del Alcazar poem looks suspiciously like a Celtic triad.
    Japanese loanwords from English are so heavily japanned they’re practically impossible to recognize: what uninstructed anglophone, hearing /oeru/, would identify it with the (unfamiliar) English phrase office lady, acronymed and rhotacized?

  42. I’m told by one of them that among Iranian youth, once two of them are at the point where one addresses the other with the -جان suffix (of endearment; Parviz-jaan, Maryam-jaan and so on; -joon, in Tehran, in practice), the response is often بادنجان , our bādinǧān above.

  43. It’s perhaps a little silly to add more words at this point, but the Georgian is ბადრიჯანი badrijani. One of many Georgian loans from Persian.

  44. It’s never silly to add more words, especially Georgian.

  45. It’s thought that the Cid Hamete Benengeli, the alleged original Arabic author of Don Quixote, has a surname that is meant to suggest berenjena.

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