Bletting the Medlar.

Zaria Gorvett writes for BBC Future about a fruit I was barely aware of; there are several items of linguistic interest:

The polite, socially acceptable name by which it’s currently known is the medlar. But for the best part of 900 years, the fruit was called the “open-arse” – thought to be a reference to the appearance of its own large “calyx” or bottom. The medlar’s aliases abroad were hardly more flattering. In France, it was variously known as “la partie postérieure de ce quadrupede” (the posterior part of this quadruped), “cu d’singe” (monkey’s bottom), “cu d’ane” (donkey’s bottom), and cul de chien (dog’s bottom)… you get the idea. […]

The fruit are unusual for two reasons. Firstly, they’re harvested in December – making them one of very few sources of sugar that would have been available in medieval winters. Secondly, they only become edible when they’re rotten.

When they’re first picked, medlars are greenish brown and resemble oddly-shaped onions or alien-looking persimmons. If they’re eaten straight away, they can make you violently ill – one 18th Century doctor and botanist said that they cause diarrhoea. But if you put them in a crate of sawdust or straw and forget about them for several weeks, they gradually darken and their hard, astringent flesh softens to the consistency of a baked apple. […] The process is known as “bletting”, a word made-up by a botanist who noticed there wasn’t one in 1839 [sic; see below]. […]

Apart from the obvious sexual allusions that can be made with a fruit with so many vulgar nicknames, it’s thought that the medlar’s quirky need for rotting partly explains why they made it into so many literary works – medieval audiences lapped up the symbolism of a fruit that is rotten before it’s ripe. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, he draws a comparison with the fruit – “But if I fare as dooth an open-ers” – to lament the onset of old age and how he doesn’t think men achieve their full ability to lie, boast, covet and become angry until they’re weakened and elderly. […]

In the medlar’s native territory near the Caspian Sea, the fruit remains as popular as ever. It’s still widely grown in Iran, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Turkey, where it’s sold in markets as musmula. Steward says she once received a message from a Kyrgyzstani family who had moved to England and were desperate to recreate the experience of foraging for wild medlars that they had to leave behind.

That Turkish word should be muşmula (stress on the first syllable), whose Ottoman ancestor gave rise to the words for ‘medlar’ in languages all across the lands influenced by Perso-Turkish culture, from Albanian mushmollë (stress on the second syllable) to Russian мушмула (stress on the last syllable); the interesting thing is that it is from the same source as medlar — both go back to Ancient Greek μέσπιλον (“Possibly cognate to Proto-Kartvelian *sxmarṭl- (‘medlar’) with metathesis of the initial consonants”). The OED (entry updated June 2001) says the earlier English form was medle, “< Anglo-Norman meddle, medle, mele, Old French, Middle French melle (c1180), mesle (early 14th cent.) fruit of the medlar tree < classical Latin mespilum,” which of course is from μέσπιλον. As for blet, the OED says “Adopted by Lindley from French blett-ir ‘devenir blet,’ < blet, blette ‘sleepy’ as an over-ripe pear.” And Lindley wrote (Introd. Bot. II. 257) in 1835, not 1839 (tsk). Thanks, Nick!

Comments

  1. cu d’âne.

    I wonder if “bletting” applies to persimmons too. Aside from these newfangled Fuyus, you need a persimmon to get close to liquid, or you’ll be sorry.

  2. Mespilum is the ancestor of níspero, the Spanish term I know for the loquat.

  3. Interesting! And I should of course have mentioned the loquat, which “was formerly thought to be closely related to the genus Mespilus, and is still sometimes known as the Japanese medlar.”

  4. It’s “cul d’âne”: I do not understand why they neglected the final /l/ here and in “cu d’singe” (which should be “cul de singe”, of course) when they spelled “cul de chien” correctly (the written “l” is, unusually, silent in this word, which is thus realized /ky/)

    Oh, and “quadrupede” should be “quadrupède”.

  5. It’s the BBC, you can’t expect too much.

  6. Dmitry Pruss says

    The Russian word is more commonly associated with the oriental loquat (although it can be called локва as well). Tried those loquats before, but not the “original” mushmulla

  7. marie-lucie says

    The text does not give the modern French word for the fruit, la nèfle, obviously a cognate of Spanish nispero.

    Years ago my father used to belong to a group that went horseriding in nearby forests. He said they often saw néfliers (the trees) and that the horses would eat the fruit right off the branch. But the riders left them alone. Apart from their unappetizing appearance and reputation, the fruit also have fairly large seeds, My father once brought some medlars home, just to show us.

    As for the adjectiveblet, blette (the latter regionally blèche), it means ‘overripe’, especially applying to a pear, or a medlar. I was not aware that it could also mean ‘sleepy’ – which could also be dialectal.

  8. In the US, too, loquats are rarely eaten. Here in foodie California, loquat trees grow as ornamentals all over the place, and their perfectly tasty fruit are left to the birds or to spoil. Even the foodiest markets, ever-eager to market the latest exotic item, don’t sell them. Chinese markets sometimes do but not all of them.

    Speaking of exotic fruit, I learned recently that lychees and Gewürztraminer grapes share the same aromatic compounds. That’s why they, um, smell alike.

  9. I tried looking for cu/cul references in the wonderful Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch but there are too many of them and my eyes started spinning.

  10. The loquat (a Central Asian plant) is sometimes known in Turkish as yenidünya, lit. ‘new world’, in perfect symmetry with the American turkey.

  11. @Y: Great vines stink alike?

  12. Say, you got something there…

  13. Now I know the English for שֶׁסֶק shesek! Thanks, Y.

  14. It’s “cul d’âne”: I do not understand why they neglected the final /l/ here and in “cu d’singe” (which should be “cul de singe”, of course) when they spelled “cul de chien” correctly (the written “l” is, unusually, silent in this word, which is thus realized /ky/)

    Blame Eugène Rolland, “Flore populaire” vol. 5 (1904) p.138 or perhaps blame those who cited Rolland uncritically; he gives many regional names with rusticated spellings.

    And Lindley wrote (Introd. Bot. II. 257) in 1835, not 1839 (tsk).

    Tsk, it’s page 296, not 257 (of the 1835 or 2nd edition). It’s p.356 of the third (1839) edition.

    The passage is Lindley’s translation of Alphonse de Candolle’s condensation of Jacques Étienne Bérard (1821). The first (1832) edition (p.268) translates Bérard (p.225) directly: “Un fruit mûr qu’on expose à l’air pourrit ou devient blet” as “Ripe fruit exposed to the air rots and decays”.

  15. Y: I’ve seen loquats at the farmer’s market here occasionally, but why pay money when I can pick them for free on the street?

  16. There isn’t much fresh fruit anywhere mid-spring, so the Eastern loquats come in nice. Better from the tree, of course 🙂

  17. mollymooly: the 1904 book has “cu d’ané”, thrice sic. Wha?

    It look like cu and cul come from different dialects and are all mixed up in the same lexicographical bin.

  18. Bletting, at Wikipedia:

    There are some fruits that are either sweeter after some bletting, such as sea buckthorn, or for which most varieties can be eaten raw only after bletting, such as medlars, persimmons, quince, service tree fruit, and wild service tree fruit (“chequers”). The rowan or mountain ash fruit must be bletted and cooked to be edible […]

    I’ve had persimmons, quince (cooked, not bletted), and rowanberries. Still waiting to sample sea buckthorn, medlar, and service tree fruit.

  19. cooked, not bletted

    Reminds me irresistibly of “shaken, not stirred.”

  20. Persimmons are best if ripened on the tree, but they can be bletted as well. They grow wild around here, although I’m not sure if they are actually native or introduced.

  21. service tree fruit

    My turn to be surprised, I am very fond of Sorbus spp. bit I didn’t know that many separate species are native to Europe’s South, and used as food. Most people I met are horrified by the taste of rowanberries (even after frosts, for it’s freezing rather than “bletting” which is making them more palatable according to Russian lore. Viburnum (калина) too. ). In our part of the US, service-berries are Amelanchier spp., ирга in Russian

    I actually just tried a sip of a homemade rowan-honey brandy but even this gentle drink horrifies most people around here.

    Sea-buckthorn is very popular in Russia and its preserves can probably be procured anywhere where is a sizeable Russian community. It isn’t native to the US, but is grown as hedges and highway blowing-snow protection in the high prairies.

  22. “open-arse”

    I’m reminded of Hottentoten Popo, aka Lithops spp.:

    Lithops that are rounded and peach-colored remind some people of baby bottoms. (German collectors call lithops Hottentotenpopo, and “popo” is slang for “butt.”) The Khoisan people (formerly known as Hottentots) of southern Africa noted that lithops resemble the C-shaped tracks of horse hooves and call the plants the Afrikaans word for the same. In English, the common nickname is “living stones,” though these stones can turn to mush without proper care.

    https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2007-aug-23-hm-lithops23-story.html

  23. Ugh. The term refers to Sarah Baartman, the so called “Hottentot Venus”, displayed near-naked in Europe as a ludicrous titillating freak, for the shape and size of her butt.

    “Hottentot” referred to the Khoekhoe. The San were called “Bushmen”. Both terms are unambiguously offensive, nowadays and likely always.

  24. William Boyd says

    As ‘F’ notes above, loquats, at least in mid-1980s Palm Beach County, FL, commonly found growing in the curb-lawns. When we bought our place near Juno Beach, I was delighted to find two loquats; both yielded yearly bounties of this precious fruit. By the way, the loquat flowers in winter. The delicious fruit are roughly golf-ball sized; the flesh containing two moderate-sized black seeds is a dull orange in color.

    Later moved to GA, I bought a few seeds via a Farm-to-Market bulletin; those seeds became seedlings. Nurtured well, the seedlings became fine 6-foot shrubs, one of which I planted on the sheltering south side of the house. In a few years, a mild-enough winter allowed the fruiting buds to set, then fruit! Again, more seeds from those fruits. And years later one seedling I carried with me to north-sorta-central VA. Here, though, no flowers in this pot-bound specimen; too with much colder winter, fruit would likely be a once-in-a-century event.

    3.5 years ago, touring Guatemala and seeing “nisperos” in the markets, I learned a bit of a yearly event: https://eventos.guatemala.com/sociales/festival-nispero-san-juan-obispo-noviembre-2020.html

  25. Both terms are unambiguously offensive, nowadays and likely always.

    Not so; “Bushmen” is used by many San, and the term “San” itself started as an offensive exonym. Wikipedia:

    Both designations “Bushmen” and “San” are exonyms in origin, but San had been widely adopted as an endonym by the late 1990s. “San” originates as a pejorative Khoekhoe appellation for foragers without cattle or other wealth, from a root saa “picking up from the ground” + plural –n in the Haiǁom dialect. The term Bushmen, from 17th-century Dutch Bosjesmans, is still widely used by others and to self-identify, but in some instances the term has also been described as pejorative.

    Adoption of the Khoekhoe term San in Western anthropology dates to the 1970s, and this remains the standard term in English-language ethnographic literature, although some authors have later switched back to Bushmen.

    In short, it’s complicated (like most human affairs), and you do no one any favors by loudly proclaiming the immutable truth of one point of view. It’s like insisting “Indian” is offensive (many Native Americans think so, but most don’t), or saying if you call the city “Bombay” (like most of its residents) you’re being colonialist. Read this and tell me it’s from an ignorant colonialist viewpoint.

  26. San = Finns.

  27. marie-lucie says

    LH, thank you for calling attention to the horrendous treatment of the Bushmen in Botswana.

  28. I stand corrected. I had the impression that “Hottentot” and “Bushman” had the same status.

  29. The disgusting display of Sarah Baartman, was not just about her buttocks. There was also apparently considerable interest in her supposedly extremely large clitoral hood. Ew.

  30. Vincent Daly says

    The BBC’s author saying it was known as “la partie postérieure de ce quadupède” when no quadruped had been mentioned made no sense to me, so I did a little digging.

    I think she got most of her facts from a 1985 article in Economic Botany, by John R Baird and John W Thieret, who quote a 1945 book by a P. Peyre as saying that the name cul de chien derives from a resemblance of the fruit, in distal view, to “la partie postérieure de ce quadrupède.” They also mention cu d’singe and and cu d’âne, getting them from a 1920 book by George Saintsbury.

  31. Thanks, I was wondering about that!

  32. I was too going to disagree about “Bushmen” AND write about Bushmen in Botswana. The problem is, though:

    – we can agree or disagree about whether it is good or bad, when me, juha, LH and Y say “Bushmen” to each other, and our argument won’t affect Bushmen in any way.

    – and then when it comes to actual Bushmen and their actual vulnerability (because they are vulnerable, just not to words), we also can share information about Botswana with each other.

    And it seems it also won’t affect their situation.

  33. Is there anything that can be done or said that leads to anything but loving ourselves for our moral superiority over 18th century people? (this can be called racism or “temporism” too). I am serious.

    I read about it some 15 years ago in Wikipedia. Then when a reader finds it (in Wikipedia or in the news), a reader can think the following: “it is in the news, so likely there is some right group concerned with the problem“. Indeed, Wikipedia (today) does mention such a group, and this group is concerned witht he situation since 1980s. Meanwhile, it is 2020.

    I assume, “enthusiasts of linguistics and anthropology” are exactly the community that is going to know about about people like Bushmen and give a shit about them (apart of the human rights group mentioned above).

    From this I assume, that solving such issues is also a responsibility of this very community.

  34. There’s no advantage in using obsolete insulting terms, and I personally believe that learning good manners is a life-long endeavor, and takes practice.

  35. @Y, as I said: I disagree, but whether we agree or disagree on what “good manners” is (is not it supposed to be a matter of inter-cultural differences?), it does not affect the current situation of the Bushmen.

    And I do not like that I can’t affect it.

  36. Well, good manners have at their core being considerate of others’ feelings. If some people are offended by me calling them one thing or another, I’d like to respect that.

  37. David Marjanović says

    Unsurprisingly, I only knew the plants as lebende Steine.

  38. Dmitry Pruss says

    it does not affect the current situation of the Bushmen

    the cause-and-effect chain may even be the opposite; the disadvantaged status of a group may in itself make all its names acquire a negative connotation over time, pushing the language into a runaway word-replacement. But then the least we can do is to keep shifting to the new words in a timely fashion.

  39. @Y, taking an actual effort to think about others’ feelings is, of course, important.

    But then it leads to Botswana. We do not have a Westernized Bushman here who is deeply offended by that we call him a Bushman, as if he were a savage hunter-gatherer and not a Civilized Normal Person Like You and I.

    We instead have savage hunter-gatherers and the president saying (2005) “How can we continue to have Stone Age creatures in an age of computers?”. That is, it is their right to keep hunting, gathering, be savage and live in whatever is referred to by “Bush” in this specific case that is not respected. Or so were the reports when I first read about it.

  40. drasvi, I was not talking about Botswana in particular, just in general.

  41. I’m explaining why I am. I can’t care about feelings of a “generalized” other.
    To evaluate the word from a Bushman’s perspective I need Bushmen. But I think, there is not a single Bushman in my country. Thus Botswana.

  42. Unsurprisingly, I only knew the plants as lebende Steine.

    I’d come across it in a German book about succulent plants, but can’t find it now. It’s either
    Rudolf Heine: Lithops – lebende Steine. 1. Auflage
    or
    Walther Haage: Das praktische Kakteenbuch in Farben. 12. Auflage.

    And it should have been Hottentotten.

  43. The loquat (a Central Asian plant) is sometimes known in Turkish as yenidünya, lit. ‘new world’

    This fruit has so many interesting names around the world!

    The first word I learned for “loquat” was ekkadinya, as they were most often called in the Lebanese Armenian markets in Watertown, MA. There is more information on the history of this interesting word family in the Wiktionary here.

    Later I met the loquat in Japan as the biwa 枇杷 , the name being of Chinese origin and ultimately making reference to 琵琶 “pipa, lute” (Mandarin pípá, Japanese biwa)—the fruit was said to resemble a lute in shape. And name of the Chinese instrument even has an interesting further etymology of its own.

    The etymological section of the Wikipedia article on the loquat answered a long-standing question of mine. Additional details of the history of the name loquat can be found here, in H. T. Huang (2001) Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 6, Biology and Biological Technology, Part 5, Fermentations and Food Science, p. 54, note 155. (There it is said that it was the leaf shape, not the fruit shape, that was said to resemble a lute and gave rise to the name 枇杷 pípá.)

  44. The name loquat derives from lou⁴ gwat¹, the Cantonese pronunciation of the classical Chinese: 蘆橘; pinyin: lújú, literally “black orange”. The phrase “black orange” originally actually referred to unripened kumquats, which are dark green in color. But the name was mistakenly applied to the loquat we know today by the ancient Chinese poet Su Shi when he was residing in southern China, and the mistake was widely taken up by the Cantonese region thereafter.

    Damn poets, always messing up the language!

  45. Trond Engen says

    Xerib: And name of the Chinese instrument even has an interesting further etymology of its own.

    Encyclopædia Iranica on Barbat

    Further down we get to the form barbud, contaminated with ʿūd/ oud:

    Used widely throughout the Middle East and central Asia, the barbaṭ was adopted around 600 a.d. by the Arabs of Ḥīra, but was later supplanted by an improved modification, the ʿūd (attributed to Zaryāb, 8-9th cent.; Farmer, loc. cit.), which originally had four, then five double gut strings, a deeper and rounder sound box made of wood strips, and a neck that was independent from the body.

    This made me wonder if lute derives from al-ʿūd, and so it seems.

  46. it’s freezing rather than “bletting” which is making them more palatable according to Russian lore

    Also said of persimmons, and not true of them at least.

    They grow wild around here, although I’m not sure if they are actually native or introduced.

    Not sure where Brett is, but persimmons are one of those warm-temperate flora that are found in both southeastern China and southeastern US. Hence the name, which is Algonkian. (Cf. catalpa, sassafras, words which always look a bit odd to me when they pop up in translations of Tang poetry.)

  47. David Eddyshaw says

    “Bletting the medlar” is either an old-fashioned country dance, or an old-fashioned country euphemism. Or possibly both; one thing tends to lead to another with these old-fashioned rural folk.

  48. “Ay, they was blettin’ t’medlar oot ayont t’barn, they was…”

  49. January First-of-May says

    The Russian word is more commonly associated with the oriental loquat (although it can be called локва as well). Tried those loquats before, but not the “original” mushmulla

    The Russian names I know for Eryobotria japonica (the loquat) are мушмула (fully мушмула японская “Japanese mushmula”, as apparently contrasted with мушмула германская “German mushmula”, which is the medlar), эриоботрия (i.e. the Latin genus name, mostly attested in reference to a set of “educational” alphabet blocks whose pictures made its way around Runet about a dozen years ago), and шесек (a direct borrowing of Hebrew שֶׁסֶק [thanks TR!], rare outside Israeli Russian). It is very tasty, though the seeds are indeed quite large.

    I don’t recall having ever encountered локва before. I wonder if it rhymes with смоква “fig”. Based on the English I would have guessed final-stress *локват, by analogy with кумкват “kumquat”.
    Similarly, if I ever knew that the English term was “loquat” (and I probably did) I had (almost?) completely forgotten it; if you asked me a week ago what the English for шесек was I would probably have guessed either “shesek” or (some spelling of) “eryobotria”.

    I do not recall having heard of the medlar/German mushmula before this thread either; as far as I was aware мушмула was a synonym of шесек. I did vaguely recall some references to it actually being a smaller variety of shesek from somewhere in the southern parts of the former USSR, but I’m not very sure if those southern parts were Caucasus or Central Asia – and I suspect it was more likely the latter (my father grew up in Tashkent).
    …I wonder if the OP’s “wild medlars” that the Kyrgyzstani family so enjoyed were in fact loquats!

    I’ve had persimmons, quince (cooked, not bletted), and rowanberries. Still waiting to sample sea buckthorn, medlar, and service tree fruit.

    I’ve tried either rowanberries or service tree fruit (whichever corresponds to the Russian красноплодная рябина… the former, I think) and sea buckthorn (very popular in Russia, as mentioned by Dmitry Pruss). Some day I’ll try quince (айва in Russian; it’s common in Moscow markets), though I’m probably not going to blet it!
    I’m obviously familiar with the commercial large persimmons [Diospyros kaki], but I’ve had the small ones [Diospyros lotus aka “date plum”] too (my father bought some in Kislovodsk after the math olympiad in either 2008 or 2009).

    even after frosts, for it’s freezing rather than “bletting” which is making them more palatable according to Russian lore

    Indeed; I’ve also learned that the unpalatable varieties of commercial persimmon can be made palatable by putting them in the freezer.
    I’ve tried калина a few times (is there an English name for that one?) and found it a little bit bitter but nice. Better than rowan, anyway.

    At some point Russians have decided to call Aronia melanocarpa (“black chokeberry”, apparently) the “black rowan” (черноплодная рябина); it is also quite popular in Russia (far more so than rowan proper).

    Here, though, no flowers in this pot-bound specimen

    My family brought a few loquats from Israel in 2002, and ended up planting some of the seeds; one sapling survived in a pot until 2008, by which point it was about five feet tall, but ended up freezing in a particularly cold winter. It only had about six or seven leaves at the time. I doubt it would have made it to flowers even if it had survived further.

    In short, it’s complicated (like most human affairs), and you do no one any favors by loudly proclaiming the immutable truth of one point of view. It’s like insisting “Indian” is offensive (many Native Americans think so, but most don’t)

    “Eskimo” is a similar example, IIRC: some Inuit are insulted by being called Eskimo, some aren’t, and there are a few groups of non-Inuit Eskimo who are insulted by being called Inuit.

    IIRC, a few months ago we’ve discussed a group – sadly I seem to have forgotten which one – that had accepted a Western exonym because they previously had no endonym for the entire group, only for (relatively small) individual tribes.

    the cause-and-effect chain may even be the opposite; the disadvantaged status of a group may in itself make all its names acquire a negative connotation over time, pushing the language into a runaway word-replacement

    Particularly if it is the kind of group that other people might want to disparagingly compare someone to a member of. (Note that this is in no way limited to ethnic groups; in fact non-ethnic examples might be more common.)
    This can also lead to inconvenient situations where people actually self-identify as [recently replaced term] and/or [term from several replacements ago] because that’s what they grew up with and they don’t think the new terms fit their identification as well as the old ones.

    Not sure where Brett is, but persimmons are one of those warm-temperate flora that are found in both southeastern China and southeastern US. Hence the name, which is Algonkian.

    …TIL. The Russian is хурма, which is apparently borrowed via Ottoman from a Persian word for date fruits.
    Incidentally, also TIL that the tree that ebony wood comes from is in the same genus. I had no idea, or if I did, I had forgotten. (Sometimes I forget that ebony is even a kind of wood in the first place.)

    [As a side-note, I suspect that this might be well among my longest LH comments ever. That was a lot of responses.]

  50. Hebrew shesek was adapted from Aramaic shiska, mentioned in the Talmud. Wikipedia says (without references) that fruit is surmised to be either the medlar or some variety of buckthorn (aka jujube). Rashi thought they were plums (French prunes). The context is a discussion of whether storekeepers can hand out samples of their wares to children. Earlier rabbis ruled that handing out nuts to children was unfair to other storekeepers, because it creates future paying clients accustomed to that particular shop. Later rabbis ruled that it is permitted, because other storekeepers can do the same thing: “I’ll pass out nuts, you pass out shiskei.” I’ll allow that the children of the Middle East back then would not refuse a sweet, freshly bletted medlar.

  51. jack morava says

    It may be off-topic to bring this up here, but his thread has digressed a couple of times into issues of ugly colonialism in Africa, and it may be relevant to mention the accounts in Thomas Pynchon’s novel V, of the Herero genocide:

    https://electricliterature.com/thomas-pynchon-shows-us-how-white-writers-can-avoid-appropriation/

    see also

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herero_and_Namaqua_genocide

  52. David Eddyshaw says

    If Pynchon were to set a story anywhere on the African continent today, I would be outraged.

    I have really nothing to say to someone who can come out with this sort of thing. (The author is half-Mauritian, which she evidently feels gives her the right to decide what Pynchon may say about Africa. She reckons it was all right for Pynchon to include the Herero/Namaqua genocide in his novel because not many people knew about it then. So that was all right then, but it wouldn’t be now.)

    A pox on all stay-in-your-own-lane merchants. May they stay away from my children.

  53. And may they not hand them any nut and medlar samples.

  54. David Eddyshaw says

    Pecunia non olet. Even from such a source, nuts is nuts, and medlars is medlars.
    So long as my children understand that taking the medlars is not to endorse the opinions. I feel that this too is an important life lesson.

  55. J.W. Brewer says

    I am indeed curious as to whether unambiguously non-diasporan “African” writers would generally think of metisse Mauritians as “African” in the same sense they are. And whether her “on the African continent” formulation gives Pynchon wiggle room to set a story on Mauritius. (FWIW, I found it rather an odd experience to read the one Pynchon novel set in a time and place where I myself had lived – viz. Bleeding Edge, set in and around NYC in 2001.)

  56. jack morava says

    @ David Eddyshaw,

    My apologies; it wasn’t my intent to to recommend the half-Mauritian, it was to commend Pynchon. I was stunned to read him back in the day, and still think he was ahead of his time.

  57. David Eddyshaw says

    @jack:

    No apologies called for at all. I was cross with the author, not the linker (and it is an interesting article.) Using a genocide as a literary motif, however sensitively, actually does bother me, but the cultural-appropriation aspect is exactly the wrong part of that to pick up on: the author’s preconceptions have clouded her insight.

    @JWB:

    My experience of Black Americans in Ghana is that the locals regard them as “white”, partly for cultural reasons, and partly because the “one-drop” rule is evidently absurd outside its homeland. (Inside its homeland, too.)

    Ariel Saramandi would undoubtedly be regarded as “white” in Ghana (I think I previously recounted the story of a Sri Lankan colleague who used to get quite annoyed at being called “white.”)

    The notion of “Africans” as a discrete human grouping is, of course, itself a (relatively modern*) European construct. Its adoption in Africa is the result of colonialism. The equivalent in Hausa is an English loanword, and in Kusaal is just a calque of “Black (person.)”

    *Latin Afer does not mean “African.”

  58. @Rodger C: There are definitely persimmons indigenous to South Carolina, where I am, but what I am unsure of is whether the ones I see growing wild are actually the native variety, or whether they are descended from other persimmon varieties introduced (presumably from Asia). The wild ones I’m thinking of seem to be essentially identical to some of the ones that are cultivated as ornamentals, but that doesn’t really help much, since I don’t know where the ornamentals came from.

  59. marie-lucie says

    DE *Latin Afer does not mean “African.”

    Really? This is one of the first words I remember learning in Latin class, alongside “pulcher” and a few others, after “rosa” (and “Africa”) and “dominus”.

    Of course the Romans were not very cognizant of Subsaharan Africa, but what is your own translation of this word?

  60. The WP article on persimmons, first, names a number of species and varieties, including the American species, which differ in appearance, flavor, and behavior, and all of which I would very much like to try out; second, it uses “bletting” also to refer to artificially-induced ripening by exposure to ethylene, not just by cold; and third, includes the sentence “Unripened persimmons contain the soluble tannin shibuol, which, upon contact with a weak acid, polymerizes in the stomach and forms a gluey coagulum, a ‘foodball’ or phytobezoar, that can affix with other stomach matter.” Shibuol, foodball, coagulum, phytobezoar. These are what I’ll name my four children.

    Ed.: The specific kind of phytobezoar caused by eating unripe persimmons is called a diospyrobezoar. I’ll need to make five children, or at least remember the word to use in Scrabble.

  61. Reminded mye about Tunisian city of Mahdia, which on European maps (before 19th century) was “Africa”.

    I would really love to know why. But the complete address then is: Africa, Africa, Africa.
    The city, province and continent of.

  62. For LH readers who are curious about the topic, the passage in the Talmud dealing with the Aramaic שיסקא šisqā “jujube” (source of Modern Hebrew שסק šesek “loquat”) is here (Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 60a).

    There is also an Informative Twitter thread on the Modern Hebrew word šesek here.

  63. According to the thread, the identification of the plant as medlar or buckthorn is due to Löw: the original is here and is undecipherable to me (very telegraphic, and you need to read Syrian and some Arabic). Ben-Yehuda already had a name for the buckthorn (שֵׁיזָף šēizāf) so he used this one for the loquat. The medlar does not have a modern Hebrew name that I know of.

  64. …TIL. The Russian is хурма, which is apparently borrowed via Ottoman from a Persian word for date fruits.

    I do not understand what is going on here. The Persian word is said to be xormâlu < xormâ "date", âlu "plum".
    See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Date-plum.
    Wiktionary even gives dátphluma as Irish translation for “persimmon”.

    The same Wiktionary gives xurma “persimmon” for Georgian (with piniḳi for “date”, which does not look like an old Georgian word: it is clearly from Greek phoînix as Russian finik) and xurma in both meanings in Armenian.

    For “date” also an older armaw is given, said to be from a Parthian amrāw, a cognate of the previous. And this armaw also translates Greek phoînix in the sense “phoenix” (alongside with pʿiwnik).

    I am just quoting
    https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/date#Translations
    https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/persimmon#Translations

    What I do not udnerstand: where and how the omonymy happened? And why Caucasian langauges would use a Persian loan for persimmon, if it grows there?

  65. i was interested to see “yenidünya” for medlar and “ekkadinya” for loquat upthread. i’ve run into “dunya” for quince in serbia (in the context of rakia – i favor the dunja, šljiva, and kruška versions), which seems like it must be related (at least as bletting-cousin terms).

    wiktionary claims “дуња… From earlier гду̏ња, from Proto-Slavic *kъduňa, from Latin cydōnia, from Ancient Greek Κυδωνία (Kudōnía, “quince-tree”)”, which seems perfectly reasonable, but seems oddly skew to what Xerîb directed us towards there under إِسْكِيدُنْيَا‎ (ʾiskīdunyā): ” the first half is in fact the Persian borrowing ازگیل‎ / ezgil (“medlar”). And the second half also, دنیا‎ / dünya (“world”) being a reinterpretation of دنگل‎ (döngel, düngel, “medlar”), which is the same word blended with the stem of دونمك‎ / dönmek (“to turn around”) based on the fruit’s round form.”

    i always love this kind of doubled etymology – “medlar medlar” is a great way to name a fruit! – but even if i didn’t, it seems a bit implausible that the balkan slavic term would not be connected to the ottoman/arabic ones for fruits that seem to be in the same semantic cluster.

  66. i was interested to see “yenidünya” for medlar

    In my experience in eastern Turkey, yenidünya is “loquat” only. For “medlar”, there are muşmula, döngel, and beşbıyık (“five mustachios, five whiskers”), as in this video for example: https://youtu.be/BdjXk7uYimw.

    oddly skew to what Xerîb directed us towards

    I should have added, “As always with the Wiktionary, caveat lector”. There is data to be contemplated there but a lot remains to be explained. I am hoping that another LH reader less lazy than myself will ferret out a complete published treatment of the family of Turkish and Arabic names for “loquat”. One point to note—it may be irrelevant—in regard to a possible relationship with words for “quince” ultimately descending from Greek κυδώνιον “quince”, or through deformation of a compound made up of the Persian and Turkish elements meaning “medlar”: the Turkish word yeni “new” used to be [yeŋi] with a velar [ŋ].

    i always love this kind of doubled etymology – “medlar medlar”

    I would love to learn more examples!

  67. I am starting to think that etymologies of edible stuff is a field of research on its own.

    And I certainly would buy a book dedicated to Arabic edible etymologies.

  68. κυδώνιον

    Specifically μήλον κυδώνιον, “Cydonian apple”, where Κυδωνία is not the Cydonia on Mars, known to people who fly saucers, but the Cretan city.

    There is also a Slavic dyňa, “melon”.

  69. Wiktionary gives for it the same etymology, but its source Vasmer says :

    a difficult word, usually explained as ‘inflated, blown up fruit’ from duti ‘blow’ “, and after listing his sources, adds: “accordign to Knutsson from kъduňa“.

    With a phonetical analogy lat. Bonōnia > Bъdynъ > modern Vidin, and similarly looking cross sections of melons and quinces as an explanation.
    Funnily melon is related to μήλον “apple” too.

  70. калина […] is there an English name for that one?

    The common name ‘guelder rose’ relates to the Dutch province of Gelderland, where a popular cultivar, the snowball tree, supposedly originated. Other common names include water elder, cramp bark, snowball tree, common snowball, and European cranberrybush, though this plant is not closely related to the cranberry.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viburnum_opulus#Names

  71. JorgeHoracio says

    My English Spanish translator gives me “níspero” both for the loquat and the medlar…
    Here in the Buenos Aires area in Argentina at least the níspero is a fruit that grows on a tree that one finds growing in different places. The fruit is pleasantish, normally eaten right off the tree. Not usually commercialized. I suppose that´s the loquat, and perhaps the medlar is inexistent here?

    Quien nísperos come, bebe cerveza, espárragos chupa y besa a una vieja,
    Ni come, ni bebe, ni chupa, ni besa.

  72. DE *Latin Afer does not mean “African.”

    Really? This is one of the first words I remember learning in Latin class, alongside “pulcher” and a few others, after “rosa” (and “Africa”) and “dominus”.

    Of course the Romans were not very cognizant of Subsaharan Africa, but what is your own translation of this word?
    Well, it originally designated inhabitants of a part of Africa (not all parts of the African continent that were known to the Romans). The Wikipedia page on Africa. has a discussion of the deveopment of the meaning under “Etymology”. Apparently, it was Ptolemy who introduced the modern meaning of Africa as all the landmass west of Suez. So, at least since Ptolemy, afer would mean “African” in the modern geographical sense, but not in the modern racial sense.
    A question to the Americans here – an “Arabic” looking Tunisian or a white Boer from South Africa are clearly Africans in the geographical sense, but would they qualify as Africans in the racial / minority sense? I’d be surprised if yes, especially in the case of the Boer.

  73. Specifically μήλον κυδώνιον, “Cydonian apple”, where Κυδωνία is not the Cydonia on Mars, known to people who fly saucers, but the Cretan city.

    “Cydonian spring with her attendant train…”

  74. The greatness of Ancient Egypt was important in 20th-century African American consciousness raising; I imagine Tunisia aka Carthage got a few shout-outs as well.

  75. Once I and my friend, after listening to a (rather silly and comical) Tunisian song that my friend liked and discussing a certain (funny as well) singer in Afrikaans known to us both concluded that we are fans of African music.

    My freind is a musician and plays in a group whose other members come from Madagascar, Congo, Nigeria, Italy and similar countries.

  76. PlasticPaddy says
  77. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    an “Arabic” looking Tunisian or a white Boer from South Africa are clearly Africans in the geographical sense, but would they qualify as Africans in the racial / minority sense? I’d be surprised if yes, especially in the case of the Boer.

    They don’t qualify according to the official statistics, which reflect the U.S. government’s understanding of the “social definition of race recognized in this country.” Officially, African American is a synonym for Black. Hence the following definitions.

    White – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.

    Black or African American – A person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.

  78. marie-lucie says

    Afer

    Hans, thank you. I guess the word referred to North Africans, inhabitants of what are now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Many of their descendants, although now mixed with Arabs, still maintain separate ethnic identities and languages, such as Berber.

    Immigrants to France from the first three countries are known as “Nord-Africains”, coming from “l’Afrique du Nord”, as opposed to simply “Africains” from South of the Sahara.

  79. Grazie a Signore Ponzetti 🙂
    @m-l: Interesting that Nord-Africain only refers to the three former French colonies. German Nordafrika also inludes at least Libya and Egypt.

  80. J.W. Brewer says

    Further to GP’s quotes of the “official” definitions, I have known one or two children of Egyptian (and specifically Coptic) immigrant families who purported to be surprised they didn’t “count” as African-American. I have known only one person whose family came to the U.S. to Tunisia and I don’t recall her expressing any such parallel purported surprise – although to be fair her family had only been in Tunisia since the 1490’s (following their expulsion from Iberia). Unlike France, the U.S. has no particularly significant number of immigrants from the Maghreb, and thus not much occasion to think about how they do or don’t fit into the same “Arab-American” bucket as immigrants from Lebanon or Yemen etc.

    During the 2004 U.S. presidential election, the wife of one of the two major candidates (Teresa Heinz a/k/a Teresa Heinz Kerry, whose maiden name was Simões-Ferreira) was of literally-African origin, having been born and raised in colonial Mozambique and educated at a South African university. There were some jokes about the possibility of her becoming the “first African-American First Lady,” but these jokes afaik were not shared, even light-heartedly, by the campaign because of the risk of causing offense.

    Probably the most prominent Afrikaaner-American these days (the mogul Elon Musk is from ZA but not from an Afrikaaner family) is the actress Charlize Theron, whose publicists I believe try to avoid controversy by describing her as being of “French” ancestry. This is true of her surname, but the minority of the ancestors of the Afrikaaners who were Huguenots mixed so thoroughly over the centuries with those of Dutch origin that having a French surname rather than a Dutch one is not as I understand it a meaningful signal in terms of actual proportions of French v. Dutch in the family tree.

    In U.S. parlance “Asian-American” refers to descendants of immigrants from only certain parts of Asia, not the continent as a whole (and not descendants of folks whose race/ethnicity doesn’t match up with their geographical origin — if your refugee ancestors were e.g. White Russians or German Jews who had relocated to Manchuria or Shanghai for a generation or two before coming to the U.S., you don’t count even if you personally had never set foot anywhere outside of Asia), so there’s no particular reason to expect “African-American” to match up with the geography either.

    Finally, since “African” in the U.S. context is a racial category not a geographical one, an immigrant of ultimate sub-Saharan African ancestry (complete or partial) who comes to the U.S. from let’s say Jamaica (or for that matter Mauritius) counts without any consideration of whether the location where their ancestors have been living for the last two or three centuries counts as “Africa.”

  81. I guess the word referred to North Africans, inhabitants of what are now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.

    Neither Morocco nor (the bulk of) Libya was part of Roman Africa:

    Africa was a senatorial province. After Diocletian’s administrative reforms, it was split into Africa Zeugitana (which retained the name Africa Proconsularis, as it was governed by a proconsul) in the north; Africa Byzacena to its adjacent south (corresponding to eastern Tunisia), and Africa Tripolitania to its adjacent south (corresponding to southern Tunisia and northwest Libya), all of which were part of the Dioecesis Africae. Old Africa (Africa Vetus), which generally includes the areas mentioned, was also known by the Romans (Pliny) as Africa propria, of which Carthage was its capital.

  82. Honestly, “African” for me is primarily a geographical term.

    I certainly apply it to Afrikaners, because “Africa is not for sissies” etc. I simply think of them as an African tribe.

    I am hesitant to apply it to Moroccans or Tunisians.. If I say “African” when talking to someone from teh North Africa and meaning “you”, t can be confusing (not for boers). But I just gave an example of Mahdia above. It is Africa, Africa, Africa.

  83. J.W. Brewer says

    The Roman province of “Asia” didn’t even include all of Anatolia alias Asia Minor. For an example of a shift in the other direction (broader scope to narrower), “Libya” to Herodotus meant all of Africa or at least all of its Mediterranean coast and however far south of that he had heard rumors of.

  84. Personally I find it mildly annoying that, despite being both African and American, I can’t call myself “African-American” without this being understood as a claim to be black; but, hey, non-compositional meaning is a thing. Indian Americans aren’t American Indians either.

    Of course, race being the essentially arbitrary social construct that it is, the logic of mapping continent onto colour can be taken the other way too. In the UK, Malia Bouattia was elected NUS Black Students’ Officer a few years back, which must have amused her cousins in Constantine. But after all, why not?

  85. I wondered if the Afars, of Djibouti and parts adjacent, might be named after Africa. Wikipedia suggests not:

    The word “Afar” undoubtedly has a Berber origin,[citation needed] as this word means “inhabitant of caves” which translates well the troglodyte habitat that Herodotus attributes to them. This word is not attested in the Afar language (referred to as “Adal”) according to some theories on the etymology of this word. The name may have been given by the Garamante Berbers who named them so because of their troglodyte habitat.[citation needed]

  86. The word “Afar” undoubtedly has a Berber origin… The name may have been given by the Garamante Berbers

    Oh dear. Wonder whether this proposal was original research or was copied from some colonial-era crackpot or overambitious nationalist?

    (For one thing, the name starts with a pharyngeal: ʕafar…)

  87. J.W. Brewer says

    Unlike Lameen, I am almost entirely ignorant of Afroasiastic languages. I do, however, know that the appearance of the word “undoubtedly” in an etymology should be considered a red flag raising substantial doubts about its accuracy.

  88. Amusingly, the genus of extinct African apes, Proconsul (type species Proconsul africanus) has nothing to do with proconsular Africa, as I would have first guessed. Arthur Hopwood, the discoverer of the first fossils, actually named it in reference to Consul, a chimpanzee at the London Zoo; the genus name was thus chosen to mean, “before Consul.”

  89. That’s hilarious.

  90. J.W. Brewer says

    Separate and apart from the etymology of “Afar,” when I ask wikipedia to advise me on the etymology of the topnym Djibouti it says “The etymology of the name is disputed. Several theories and legends exist regarding its origin, varying based on ethnicity.” Commendable caution, if you ask me, but fanciful folk etymology is sometimes the best etymology and I am reminded in this context that a over dozen years ago my first-born child (now almost 20 years old and gladdening her father’s heart by voluntarily studying classical Greek) thought that “Djibouti” was the most hilariously-named nation-state in the world because its name was obviously cognate to “booty,” in the AmEng sense meaning “buttocks.”

  91. There is a good justification to the American census and such definitions of “African”: it’s an approximation to the group of people who would suffer the traditional discrimination against blacks, and by it their numbers can be used in statistics meant to estimate and counteract that discrimination. For better or worse, “African” means “black enough for the KKK”.

  92. thought that “Djibouti” was the most hilariously-named nation-state in the world because its name was obviously cognate to “booty,” in the AmEng sense meaning “buttocks.”

    Hence Sheik Yerbouti.

  93. J.W. Brewer says

    hat: Exactly, although my daughter was not familiar with Zappa’s ’70’s oeuvre back then and for all I know may still be unfamiliar with it.

  94. @Xerîb: yes! loquats all the way down – apologies for the dropped stitch!

    and i’m trying to think of good doubled-etymology examples off the top of my head, and getting distracted, but of course the hattery’s been here before: http://languagehat.com/doublet-compound-name-request/

  95. David Marjanović says

    This made me wonder if lute derives from al-ʿūd, and so it seems.

    And that regularly became Laute in German, making folk etymologies from Laut “sound” inevitable.

    (…though interestingly not from laut “loud”.)

  96. January First-of-May says

    The Russian, meanwhile, is лютня, presumably inviting folk etymologies from лютый “fierce” (note: I’m not sure if such folk etymologies actually exist).

  97. PlasticPaddy says

    Since we are on lutes now, is there any connection between dombra (ex Kazakh via Russian) and tanbur (Persian)?

  98. Six years ago we were talking of the rebec.

  99. JorgeHoracio!

    Quien nísperos come, bebe cerveza,
    espárragos chupa y besa a una vieja,
    Ni come, ni bebe, ni chupa, ni besa.

    This is delightful! What sort of incident or social situation will occasion the use of this refrán nowadays?

    It seems to be quite old, as seen in this version in the Historia del famoso predicador Fray Gerundio de Campazas, aliàs Zotes (1758) of José Francisco de Isla. The nísperos here are doubtless medlars (Mespilus germanica).

    Is a similar attitude behind Sancho’s words in the Quijote?

    —Si por principales va —dijo Sancho—, ninguno más que mi amo; pero el oficio que él trae no permite despensas ni botillerías: ahí nos tendemos en mitad de un prado y nos hartamos de bellotas o de nísperos.

    “When it comes to gentility” said Sancho, “there is nobody more a gentleman than my master; but the calling he follows does not allow of larders or store-rooms; we lay ourselves down in the middle of a meadow, and fill ourselves with acorns or medlars.”

    .

  100. Löw’s larger and quite magisterial book, Die Flora der Juden, discusses at length both the medlar (p. 244) and the buckthorn (p. 136, for Zizyphus [Ziziphus] spina christi). I can’t read this much German easily. I haven’t found the šesek there.

    In the Talmud (Gittin 71a) there’s the cryptic phrase אלא בפירי ‘rather, with fruit’; it’s within the discussion of how to judge if someone is mentally deficient. Rashi interprets it “[fruit] which are not to be found at that time, such as cerises in the rainy season or nispeles in the sunny season”. Of course Rashi was writing in northern France, not in Babylon or Palestine.

  101. Löw (vol. 3, p. 245) also gives kidunja as one of the forms for “loquat” in Palestinian Arabic. I have not encountered this but will now be asking around for it.

    It would support the etymology (mentioned above) of the family of Arabic أسكيدنيا askīdunyā, Turkish yenidünya “loquat” from a Greek form such as Modern Greek κυδωνιά “quince tree”. For the semantic shift, there are interesting forms such as Russian дуля “small pear; the fig (gesture)” and earlier Polish gdula “quince; a kind of pear; tuberous pea (Lathyrus tuberosus); cyclamen(?)” (the last two meanings from roughly pear-shaped tubers?).

  102. Oh, that one is identical to Greek:/

  103. Six years ago we were talking of the rebec.

    Thanks for reminding me of that very satisfying thread: first my question about the pronunciation was thoroughly answered, then there was a detailed discussion of the etymology.

  104. John Cowan says

    either an old-fashioned country dance, or an old-fashioned country euphemism

    “Why do Orthodox Jews object to vertical intercourse?”

    “Because it might lead to mixed dancing.”

  105. I heard the same joke with Baptists / premarital sex / dancing.

  106. In one manuscript of the responsa of the Geonim (Babylon, late 1st millennium CE) we have, “What is inbetā? A boil which comes out of the body, like a šeseq [דוגמת שסק]”. That could suggest a dangling fruit, especially an overripe medlar. Yum.

    inbetā and its Hebrew and Arabic cognates usually refer to grapes, but it also appears in this medlar/buckthorn complex, along with Prunus prostrata, the mountain cherry (Löw ibid. p. 140, where the šisqā is found as well).

  107. “I heard the same joke with Baptists / premarital sex / dancing.”

    I did not know that Baptists discourage dancing. I wonder if there is a Muslim version of the joke.

    I did not comment when David wrote “An old-fashioned country euphemism“, because the joke did not originate form Russia.
    But the Russian version is about an Orthodox rabbi. There were Muslim localities where such things as singing were banned, e.g. Bukhara, and usually the same jokes are told with a “rabbi” or “mullah” (elsewhere it would be “sheikh”, but here he is “mullah”) respectively, depending on in which part of Russian empire or USSR you hear it.

  108. My wife has some old (Civil War era) letters collected by members of her family. There is one set from a man who was courting one of the young ladies. Although we only have one side of the correspondence between the pair, the last letter has him begging her not to be angry that he wouldn’t dance with her at a party. He explains that he could not possibly dance, because he was a member of a Baptist congregation; however, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care for her deeply.

  109. John Cowan says

    “I heard the same joke with Baptists / premarital sex / dancing.

    Not only Baptists but Methodists were opposed to dancing, though more so to European-style dancing with embraces than square/country dances.

    But the situations are not comparable. Even Orthodox Jews generally take the view that in marriage all sexual activities, provided there is mutual consent, are allowed with very very few exceptions, mostly around the menstruation laws. So “frown on” is ironic; acts far more unacceptable than doing it against the wall are entirely licit.

  110. In the UK, Malia Bouattia was elected NUS Black Students’ Officer a few years back, which must have amused her cousins in Constantine. But after all, why not?

    I wanted to post it here a month ago, the neighbouring discussion of paleogenetics reminded me.

    I remember a study meant to determine if prehistorical North African population has any Nenderthal admixture. I think, this one:
    this one.

    One surprising thing about it was that in their sample of Tunisian Berbers most people demonstrated less than 1% of what they took for “sub-Saharan”, “European” and “Middle Eastern” component.

    Their Algerian sample, conversely, has all components in considerable proportion. I don’t know where their Algerian sample comes from, but the coastal cites must be quite mixed… Originally I wanted to add some joke about the one-drop rule (and why it does not apply to Malia) .

  111. David Marjanović says

    the coastal cites must be quite mixed…

    Yeah. There’s no way to tell anybody can’t be Tunisian by looking at them.

  112. . There’s no way to tell anybody can’t be Tunisian by looking at them.

    I remeber I was proud with myself when in 2015 I saw on TV a Tunisian guy and though “ah, here is a Tunisian guy” and then the announcer said he is a Tunisian guy and a former hotel worker who came to Germany with the refugee wave:)


    Recognizing a Tunisian face of course not the same as proving that someone is not a Tunisian. Russians contributed too: some refugees settled there after the Revolution. And Bouchnak is, obviously “Bosniak”.

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