First of all, sound the trumpets: Polyglot Vegetarian has a new post up, just the second in the last year! The post, Green Bean, starts with restaurant menus and a detailed discussion of Chinese characters and winds its way to the main theme, the etymology of haricot. I’ll quote just enough to whet your appetite and send you over there for the full meal (there are many, many links in the quoted chunk that I won’t bother trying to reproduce):

The etymology of haricot is uncertain, with contenders from three different continents.
Haricot is a pair of homonyms: haricot de mouton is a lamb stew, from a verb harigoter meaning to cut into small pieces. The Ménagier de Paris (ca. 1393) has Hericot de mouton (II, 148). François Génin derives (Récréations philologiques, I. p. 50) this haricot from Latin aliquot ‘a few’ and Littré (s.v.) quotes the Comtesse de Bassanville as proposing Arabic hali-gote (I’m not sure what this is). More sensible sources derive harigoter from Old Low Franconian *hariôn ‘to mess up’, related to the English verb harry.
The idea that haricot beans are so-called because they came to be used in haricot stew is a bit far-fetched, particularly since beans do not seem to be a common ingredient. Even more so is Alexandre Dumas (père) ‘s claim that the stew originally was meat and beans, until “l’un des deux ingrédients a été détrôné par les navets” ‘one of the ingredients was dethroned by turnips’ (Grand dictionnaire de cuisine, s.v.). More likely is that the form of the earlier stew word influenced the later bean word.
Haricot beans (there will be no more about meat) first appear in the mid-17th century. Before then, such beans were faséoles, from Latin Phaseolus (now the name of the genus), like English fasels. […]

The detailed discussion of various possible sources is vintage Polyveg; it ends:

I don’t know the stand of more modern specialized works (and would welcome pointers). The OED still has “Origin uncertain: see Littré,” while we wait for them to make their way around to the H’s. The Oxford dictionary of English Etymology has “perh. – Aztec ayacotli.” The Petits Robert and Larousse stick with French harigoter. French Wikipedia, s.v. Haricot and Phaseolus, is somewhat uncommitted, listing some of the alternatives given above.

If anyone has pointers, now would be the time to share them.


  1. Charles Perry says

    Ahem. “Hali-gote” as the Arabic name of a legume? The Comtesse must have been pulling our jambes.

  2. Haricot beans are often eaten cut into pieces.

  3. Alois-Richard Nykl: Mexican-Spanish Etymologies, in: Modern philology vol.23 no.3 (Feb 1926), pp.349-353

    According to [Heredia’s and Nyrop’s] evidence, an obscure French pirate or colonist brought this new variety of phaseolus through Louisiana to Europe, in the eighteenth century. This particular variety was immune to a certain insect which attacked the home varieties; hence it must have come from America. The first argument has no weight. It would have been totally impossible for an obscure colonist to introduce a new variety of bean under a name that would impose itself on many varieties already known and used at home. It is well known what difficulties the Duc de Parmentier had to overcome and with what astuteness he had to give the humble potato an aristocratic flavor before the peasants took up its cultivation. Potato-soup had to be baptized potage à la Parmentier in order to be acceptable to the French palate. It is also well known how Frederick of Prussia—or Brandenburg—induced his noble Junkers to eat the plebeian food of American barbarians: he simply had it set before them on the table and led the gastronomic debauchery in person. In Czech, the potato is still popularly known as bramborBranibor, i.e.,

    and here the paywall hits.

  4. Talking of people like the self-styled comtesse who repose dans la 1ère division of Père Lachaise, Oscar Wilde’s stone monument was so eroded by lipstick kisses that it required restoration, and visitors have now been barred from touching it.

  5. Haricot beans are often eaten cut into pieces.

    What isn’t? (Aside from oysters.)

  6. Whenever an obscure question arises about beans, you always have an option to resolve it by practicing favomancy (развести на бобах, as they say)

  7. “It would have been totally impossible for an obscure colonist to introduce a new variety of bean under a name that would impose itself on many varieties already known and used at home.”
    Easily enough stated, where’s the vegetative matter in this opinion? From a foodstuff making its way in the Old World to “imposing” itself on French high society would be a vicissitudinous journey. It wasn’t in the belly of the Concorde that these green pods would have arrived on distant shores. It may not have been because some powder-wigged Duc deemed it so that the name took hold.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Old Low Franconian *hariôn ‘to mess up’

    Any relation to verheerend “catastrophic” < verheeren “to utterly destroy a land” < Heer “army”?

    Duc de Parmentier

    *lightbulb* Hachis Parmentier, minced meat covered by (too little) mashed potatoes! Available in every French supermarket.

    brambor〈Branibor, i.e.,

    where Brandenburg comes from. “Protective fir forest”.
    Still understood in Vienna.

  9. Trond Engen says

    If haricot is a Germanic word meaning chopped meat, then the second element looks like it might be the only attestation outside North Germanic of *kwet- “(piece of) meat”, as found in InsNG kvet “piece of whalemeat” and NG kjøtt etc. “meat”. Or it might be the same as Eng. ‘cut’, be it from French couteau or from a scarcely attested Germanic word Sw. dial. kuta. Or the two Germanic words might actually be related. What I can’t see is *harjon-, a word closely connected to *herja- “(plundering) army”, meaning “chop”.

  10. Yes, Modern German Heer is indeed in the set. The idea seems to be *herja- ‘army’ > *harjōn- ‘overrun with an army’ > ‘harry’ > ‘lay waste’ > ‘chop up’. It is indeed less than totally convincing, as is almost every argument around haricot.
    This same root is the source of a number of other proposals in English also with varying degrees of plausibility: harbor is a shelter for an army; herald is a wielder of the army; herring school as if in an army.

  11. and here the paywall hits.
    Fortunately, I have JSTOR access; the article continues:

    Brandenburger.’ This disposes also of the second argument. One single variety, though from America and immune to insects devouring home varieties, would not have sufficient importance to impose its Mexican name. The Mexican acocotli, transplanted into Europe toward the end of the eighteenth century, is known today as dahlia in its four hundred or more varieties, and no one remembers its picturesque Nahuatl name.

    Ayacotli, popularly known as ayocote (not ayacot), is a phaseolus cultivated in Central Mexico. In certain regions, as in Tlaxcala and Puebla, it is eaten by preference at Christmas. At other seasons, the other fifty-odd varieties of frijol are consumed, the high-plateau people preferring the brown and abhorring the black varieties, which are the favorites of the inhabitants of the coast, in the states of Vera Cruz, Tabasco, Campeche, and Yucatan.
    The word does not occur in Dr. Hernandez’ famous book. Bernal Díaz del Castillo speaks of frísoles. Bernardino de Sahagún, who was better informed than any other writer of this early period, mentions aiocotli, but without giving it any special importance. Robelo gives the following information about it:

    “Frijoles gordos,” dice Molina [i.e., in his dictionary]. “No hemos podido fijar los elementos de esta palabra. Especie de frijol, casi del tamaño de una haba, ordinariamente morado; los hay negros, blancos y pintos.” [In a note he adds:] El P. Clavijero dice: “La legumbre mas apreciada de los Mexicanos era la judia o habichuela (frijol), de la cual hay mayor numero de variedades que del maiz. La mayor es llamada ayacotli, que es del tamaño de un haba y nace de una hermosa flor encarnada.” Latin tecnico: Phaseolus multiflorus, L.

    In the markets of small villages and towns of Mexico, Morelos, Guerrero, Puebla, Tlaxcala, and Oaxaca I have collected ayocote of some twelve varieties of color. In Europe this variety is known largely to children who use it for games, and not to chefs de cuisine.
    In view of this evidence, and also of the fact that, like our “pork and beans,” which contains beans and practically no pork, the French haricot de mouton contained more fèves than mouton so that in the end the word haricot was applied to the fèves only, and although the Dictionnaire Général is noncommittal on the subject, I believe, on the basis of my investigations, that haricot is derived most probably from haligot, and has nothing whatever to do, even by contamination, with ayacotli.

  12. I find that this is one of those cases where the contenders’ arguments against their opponents’ theories are rather more convincing than the ones for their own.
    Haricot de mouton may indeed have more veggies than mouton. But those are turnips and potatoes, not beans, I believe.

  13. I am not sure what “haricot beans” are, but in French haricots refers to beans whether green or dry (not lima beans or broad beans, which are called fèves, a word of Latin origin).
    A classic French cookbook says that haricot de mouton (a mutton stew with beans and root vegetables) used to be alicot de mouton centuries ago, alicot meaning some kind of stew with chopped meat. The TLFI says that hericot [sic] de mouton is attested as early as 1393, a century before the discovery of America, much too early for a Mexican word to have arrived in Europe. The same source links haricot to a Germanic root meaning ‘cut into little pieces’. It seems that beans were so prominent in the mutton stew that haricot came to refer to the beans rather than the stew. This semantic evolution must be relatively recent, since Canadian French still uses fèves where European French uses haricots. White (navy) beans are still the traditional accompaniment of gigot de mouton ‘mutton leg’.

  14. Dry beans (such as navy or kidney beans) can be called haricots secs, green pods (served fairly long) are usually referred to as haricots verts, used as green vegetables or in salads, rather than in stews. Haricots by itself is likely to refer to dry ones.

  15. Yes, “sensible sources” in the part LH quoted was a link to TLFI in the post, which also linked to the 1393 Ménagier quotation.
    I was just about to say that no one is claiming that the stew was named after the bean. But Larousse Gastronomique does in fact propose that halicot was corrupted to haricot on that account:

    HARICOT DE MOUTON. — Improprement, on désigne souvent sous ce nom le ragoût de mouton aux navets et aux pommes de terre que, dans la pratique ancienne, on appelait Halicot de mouton. Cette appellation venait de ce que ce ragoût était préparé avec de la viande de mouton halicotée, c’est-à-dire, suivant la signification ancienne de ce mot: détaillée en morceaux. Pour justifier la fausse appellation de ce vieux plat, certains auteurs culinaires font entrer des haricots blancs dans sa préparation. Bien avant que les haricots eussent été importés d’Amérique, on préparait, en Gaule narbonnaise, une façon de ragoût de mouton aux fèves blanches, apprêt qui semble bien être l’ancêtre du cassoulet languedocien et aussi du halicot de mouton, ce qui expliquerait l’appellation de haricot de mouton.

  16. used as green vegetables or in salads
    Haricots verts (with an /h/) is used to mean that in restaurant / greengrocer English, too. That’s the link between the two parts of the post.

  17. MMcM: thank you for going to the gastronomical source! I am glad to hear about the ancestor of cassoulet, with mutton and white beans, still a winning combination.
    no one is claiming that the stew was named after the bean
    Indeed, the claim is that the bean was named after the stew, as the ratio of meat to beans must have seriously diminished with time, at least among poor people. Obviously, potatoes were a late addition to what seems to be a very ancient recipe. I can’t imagine cooking together white beans, (white) turnips and (white) potatoes.

  18. I meant to say that haricot beans, known in the U.S. as green beans simpliciter, are commonl served cut up.
    But I am one of those who bite my bread, so there are other things besides oysters that I don’t cut up, either.

  19. m-l, “haricot beans” is the British term for what I think are known in the US as “navy beans”. I’m not sure what they call them in Canada. It bothered my grandmother too that haricot in French means beans, she told me about it every time she cooked with them.
    I don’t know about its ancêtre, but surely the main difference between the mutton & haricot stew and cassoulet is that cassoulet has other meats in it besides mutton. Here’s some history of different cassoulets, though the possibility of adding tomatoes seems so completely wrong to me that I’m not sure it’s completely reliable.

  20. marie-lucie says

    Thanks AJP for the link to an excellent article.
    Mutton and white [broad] beans (fèves) as an ancestor to cassoulet was mentioned in MMcM’s quotation as a dish apparently dating from Gallo-Roman times (in Gaule narbonnaise, the region of Gaul around Narbonne near the Mediterranea and the Pyrenees). It is likely that as people became more affluent, and beans from America largely replaced broad beans, they added more expensive meats such as fattened goose and duck to the bean pot, eventually often leaving out the plebeian mutton. I can’t believe that some people actually put tomatoes in cassoulet!
    The French Wikipedia article on haricot is extremely detailed (much more so than the English article on beans). People who read French can look at the subsection “divers noms du haricot” for the wide variety of names. It is possible that the word ultimately comes from a Greek or Italian word for another legume, later mixed up with the Germanic word starting with her- or har-. Such a mix would explain that some people use the h aspiré (thus the standard le haricot) and some don’t (thus l’haricot).
    The same Wiki article has a link to the Spanish fabada asturiana, a dish reminiscent of cassoulet, prepared with beans (fabas) and pork sausages, traditionally made in the Asturias, a province of Northern Spain.

  21. ultimately comes from a Greek or Italian word
    araco < ἄραχος is the etymology that Alphonse de Candolle liked. He isn’t mentioned in that Fr. Wikipedia article, but is in the somewhat overlapping Phaseolus one.
    He goes on to speculate that the h is due to Joseph de Tournefort being mistaken about which breathing mark it had.

  22. Once again, this blog is making me hungry.

  23. A noble hunger is best satisfied by a fine helping of cassoulet. Go for it.

  24. Cassoulet will certainly fill the empty stomach.

  25. I’m glad we agree about the tomatoes, m-l.

  26. Trond Engen says

    Throwing another vegetable into the pot: Germanic *ar(V)wi:t-/*ar(V)wait- “pea” is attested in OHG araweiz and OS eriwit. Could the -w- under some rule become French -gu- word-internally? Or is there a (Celtic? Illyrian?) sequence that Germanic speakers would map to -w(a)i- and (Romance? Celtic?) speakers to -ko(V)-? Does ἄραχος add anything?
    Bjorvand & Lindeman list similar but not corresponing words from Latin (ervum) and Greek (erébinthos, órobos), but not those discussed here. Like for other agricultural plants of obscure etymology, they suggest a Wanderwort originating in some unknown language wherever the plant was cultivaated (in Asia Minor?).
    (According to B&L it’s probably a recent loan in Scandinavian since ON ertr is lacking w-breaking (= *örtr).)

  27. Trond Engen says

    spam spam spam spam spam spam baked beans spam spam spam

  28. spam spam spam spam zydeco

  29. Curtius (the medievalist’s great-uncle) saw a common root in ὄροβος and ἄραχος, so that’s not out the question.

  30. rootlesscosmo says

    @∅: Wikipedia gives the haricots → zydeco etymology, but doesn’t cite any source. It feels like folk etymology to me.

  31. The OED and Etymonline agree with the (le)s haricots > zydeco etymology, at least to the extent of calling it “probable”. Googling turns up this page, which claims that other known forms include zarico, zodico, zordico, zologo. Now it seems to me that zodico is exactly how an American anglophone with t-flapping and the father-bother merger would interpret (le)s haricots, and from zodico to zydeco is not very far at all.

  32. Yeah, that sounds plausible to me.

  33. “I’m glad we agree about the tomatoes, m-l.”
    Re: Beans and tomatoes, James Beard said he once way back in the early 60s saw Texas-style chili on a menu somewhere on the Left Bank called “Cassoulet a l’Americaine.”

  34. Well obviously it wasn’t Teaxs-style if it had beans, but it was something similar.

  35. Here‘s a 1975 newspaper recipe for “Cassoulet a l’Americaine.” If Beard used the phrase, Google can’t find it.

  36. marie-lucie says

    Jim: what do they use in Texas, if not beans? I have never heard of beanless chili con carne.
    LH: I can’t scroll and read the whole recipe, but from what I can read this recipe certainly does not deserve the name cassoulet, American or not. The cook cannot have ever eaten real cassoulet.

  37. David Marjanović says

    OHG araweiz

    Huh. NHG Erbse. With far(a)wa > Farbe, that makes two words where OHG /w/ turned into NHG /b/ instead of /v/.
    And both have /r/ somewhere in front of the /w/… </armchair neogrammarian>


    Greek words in -inthos* are native to Greece but not to Greek. As if that weren’t enough, b is automatically suspicious.
    * Kórinthos; hyákinthos; asáminthos “(Minoan) bathtub”…

  38. m-l: It is written in the Book of Texas: If you think chili has beans, you don’t know beans about chili. That is not to say that there aren’t people in Texas, and even Texans, who don’t eat their chili with beans. But the essence of the dish is chiles, chopped or ground beef, onions, garlic, and cumin. Tomatoes are common as well, but not universal; beef suet is traditional but often omitted now.

  39. Trond Engen says

    That reminds me … There’s something odd going on in No. farge, Sw. färg. They are loans from LG farwe, but unlike Da. (-> UrbNo.) farve they have -g- — even pronounced [j] in Sw. and traditional Eastern No..

  40. That is not to say that there aren’t people in Texas, and even Texans, who don’t eat their chili with beans.
    I count one too many negatives there.

  41. or one too few: change “with” to “without”?

  42. I didn’t know it either, but just last night, I watched an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon told his friends that real chili doesn’t have beans in it.

Speak Your Mind