The last time we discussed the word portobello ‘mature cremino mushroom,’ the etymology was unknown despite a plethora of suggestions. Well, it may still not be exactly known, but at least we have an authoritative hypothesis; MMcM of the brand-new blog Polyglot Vegetarian (“Grazing through the world of words”) had the excellent idea of looking for the word in the latest update to the OED, and (in the words of his latest post) “sure enough, they’ve got it”:

Brit. /ˌpɔ:təˈbɛləʊ/, U.S. /ˌpɔrdəˈbɛloʊ/ Forms: 19- portabella, 19- portabello, 19- portobello. [Perh. alteration of Italian pratarolo meadow mushroom.]
More fully portobello mushroom. A large brown variety of the common edible mushroom, having an open flat cap and a distinctive musky smell.
1990 Doylestown (Pennsylvania) Intelligencer 28 Oct. C12/3 Out of darkness now emerge the cream-colored and fuller flavoured crimani.. the wild tasting portobello and the soft-for-soup oyster mushroom. 1998 Scotl. on Sunday (Nexis) 26 July 32 Before grilling, stuff meaty Portabello mushrooms with oil-soaked crumbs and grated Parmesan or crumbled goat’s cheese. 2004 Phytochemistry 65 671/2 Tyrosinase, laccase, and peroxidase were detected in portabella mushrooms, a brown strain of Agaricus bisporus.

He adds “I am amazed that the earliest quotation they could come up with is from 1990,” and so am I. I welcome the new addition to the blogosphere, and am encouraged by his scrupulous reproduction of the OED’s formatting—too many people just paste in the text and ignore the itals and bolds; I recommend his earlier posts on vegan, okra, and burek.


  1. Thanks for the kind plug.

  2. Speaking of Okra, I don’t think I knew of its existence before it was a clue in the Sydney Morning Herald’s cryptic crossword of Thursday last week (the 4th). Then again, the clue was so easy (as are all of NS’s clues), that one need not know much:
    OK right before a vegetable (4)
    I reckon I learn more erudite words (not that ‘okra’ is especially erudite) doing the cryptic than by any other method.

  3. This is close to Merriam-Webster’s reasoning: “Etymology: perhaps alteration of Italian prataiolo, prataiuolo or dialect Italian pratarolo meadow mushroom, from prato meadow, from Latin pratum.”

  4. 1990 might be pretty close to the start.
    Books.Google.com has no citations until 1993. That one is in a book called Microbiology: Principles and Applications, by Jacquelyn G. Black. The context is “Phillips is also experimenting with growing small quantities of specialty mush-rooms such as Portobello, Nameko, winecaps and mitake. These are new to Americans and are appearing in gourmet restaurants and specialty produce stores. Once the cultivation methods are better worked out, production will increase…” (Snippet view ends here.) First citations in both cookbooks and fiction are 1994; the floodgates open in 1996 and 1997.

  5. The earliest occurrence on Usenet, according to Google, is a mushroom stew recipe from 2 May 1992.

  6. It seems odd to replace one Italian word in English with a different Italian word (or perhaps a compound of two Italian words). I suspect brandnaming (like “kiwi fruit” and “canola oil”). “Portobello” is Italian in a more satisfying way than “pratarolo”. And bellissimo!
    I have posted over there that Poland has long had its own Turks (Tatars, since 1410 or before), so “pierogi” could be a Turkish word cognate with “burek” etc., via a different transmission.

  7. Vasmer calls the Turkic etymology implausible because the word doesn’t exist in South Slavic, but that sounds silly to me. (He suggests an etymology from pir ‘feast’ with an -og suffix, which doesn’t strike me as inherently more plausible.)

  8. At least one Internet source, the “Gourmet Sleuth”, seems to think the name might come from Portobello Road, the famous market street in London.

  9. Andrew Dunbar says

    Did nobody else see this is the “Barron’s” section of Answers.com :

    The name “portobello” began to be used in the 1980s as a brilliant marketing ploy to popularize an unglamorous mushroom that, more often than not, had to be disposed of because growers couldn’t sell them.

    Notice that, between the AHD, the OED, and Barron’s we can find all nine spellings “portabela”, “portabella”, “portabello”, “portobela”, “portobella”, “portobello”, and “portobelo”.

  10. I suspected that — like “kiwi fruit” and “canola.”

  11. I agree with the marketing ploy theory. From this 2000 article: http://www.bio.net/bionet/mm/mycology/2000-January/007716.html :
    “In a triumph of marketing, the portobello mushroom, once considered an oddball – shunned and discarded – came out of nowhere in 1985 and
    started to take off in the early ‘90s. It has become a major food item in the past five years, capturing 8 percent of the mushroom market.”
    Unfortunately, no citation for the 1985 date.

Speak Your Mind