I never gave much thought to the gingko, or ginkgo (the latter, unintuitive though it is, is apparently the preferred spelling); I had no idea it was the subject of a well-known Goethe poem or that it was so widespread. Everything you might want to know can be found at Cor Kwant’s obsessive gingko site, The Ginkgo Pages. In particular, I direct your attention to The name, a somewhat scattershot page with the names of the plant in various languages, not to mention that Goethe poem (at the bottom). Oh, and the site itself is available in five languages. (Via Frizzy Logic.)

A caveat (and I’m sure others could be made): the name page says

Ginkgo : from the Chinese (later also Japanese) word Ginkyo meaning “silver apricot” (gin=silver, kyo=apricot). This term is thought to come from a romanized version for the Chinese ideograph Yin Hsing (Xing).

Ginkyo is not a Chinese word at all; as the AHD says:

Probably from ginkoo, an artificial or mistaken Sino-Japanese reading of the Chinese characters for ginkgo : Japanese gin, silver (from Middle Chinese ngin) + Japanese koo, kyoo, apricot (from Middle Chinese).


  1. A little-known fact about the Ginkgo is that the fruit have a slight odor of vomit. The Chinese have a gift for euphemism.

  2. From The Japanese Language by Roy Andrew Miller (U.Chi. 1967):

    A. C. Moule has argued convincingly that the form ginkgo originated in a double mistake – first, a mistaken “spelling pronunciation” of the Chinese characters generally used to write ichou, the usual Japanese name for the tree in question, second, a typographical error which replaced the -y- in Kaempfer’s already mistaken *ginkyo (for *ginkyou) with a -g-.

    (But Moule is not in Miller’s bibliography.)

  3. Not quite “everything you might want to know” — I was surprised (and, to be honest, disappointed) to find no mention of the fact that Ginkgo biloba is one of the main components of Mega Memory™ pills.

  4. Zizka, I have to say that the thing about the ginkgo fruit is pretty well-known to the residents of Washington, DC, which has a lot of ginkgos (my street is planted almost exclusively with them). Why, I ask myself every morning as I walk to the subway, didn’t they think to weed out the female trees? (Ginkgos are dioecious.) I have to say I wouldn’t characterize the scent of the fruit as “slight.” Yuck.
    On the other hand, the fruit, which looks like a small apricot and has an apricot- or almond-type kernel, is not universally loathed: there is a small Vietnamese population in my neighborhood and lately I’ve been seeing little old Asian ladies with plastic bags over their shoes and buckets in their hands, going around collecting the kernels from out of the masses of squashed fruit on the sidewalk.

  5. “Slight” — my Chinese studies have given me some euphemizing abilities.

  6. I’ve got an anecdote from distant youth involving a ginkgo tree and an old, stubborn, wooden door in an adobe wall around an abandoned garden, a hidden bee’s nest suddenly aroused, and a stunningly valorous girl-friend, but it’s too long for this format.
    So here’s this from that ’20 Questions’ thing a while back.

    Ginkgo supplements for cognitive enhancement: daily use seems to be counter-productive, some kind of mineral depletion probably.
    Every three days or so seems to be about it, for my metabolism.

  7. daily use seems to be counter-productive, some kind of mineral depletion probably.
    Aha, that explains why you haven’t been posting lately, Jonathon!
    Anton: Thanks very much; that’s exactly what I wanted to know.

  8. The AHD now says:

    [Probably from ginkyō (with graphic confusion of a romanized form of this word leading to the spelling with -kg- in European languages) : Japanese gin, silver (from Middle Chinese ŋin, ultimately from Proto-Sino-Tibetan *ŋul; akin to Tibetan dngul and Burmese ngwe) + Japanese kyō, apricot, any of several members of the genus Prunus (from Middle Chinese xɦaːjŋ`, also the source of Mandarin xìng).]

    Word History: The odd spelling of the word ginkgo, which hardly indicates the usual pronunciation (gĭng′kō) very well, results from a botanist’s error. In Japanese, the name of the ginkgo tree is written with kanji that can be read as ginkyō. The kanji that is pronounced gin literally means “silver,” while the kanji pronounced kyō refers to several fruit-bearing trees of the genus Prunus, including the apricot. The kanji thus make reference to the green fruitlike structures that are borne by the female trees and contain a hard white inner seed covering similar to an apricot pit or pistachio shell. In Modern Japanese, however, these kanji are not read ginkyō but rather ginnan when they refer to the edible seeds and ichō when they refer to the tree itself. This complicated situation helps explain how the name of the tree came to be spelled ginkgo in European languages. The first Western scientist to learn of the existence of the ginkgo tree was Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716), a German physician and naturalist who visited Japan in 1691 and brought some seeds of the ginkgo back to Europe. During his stay in Japan, he also took notes on a Japanese work on botany and added comments on how to pronounce the names of the plants written in kanji. While taking these notes, Kaempfer apparently made a mistake and jotted down that the kanji literally meaning “silver apricot” were to be pronounced ginkgo. Later, he used these notes to prepare a book on the plants of Japan, and his mistake found its way into print. The great Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus perpetuated the error when assigning the scientific name Ginkgo biloba (“the two-lobed ginkgo”) to the tree, and the spelling has been fixed ever since.

    An admirably thorough explanation.

    Also, it’s amazing that the original Ginkgo Pages link still works after almost two decades.

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