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.

  12. ktschwarz says

    Here’s your 1985 citation, as reported by Barry Popik on ADS-L in 2002:

    Growing U.S. Taste for Mushrooms
    The New York Times
    October 23, 1985, Section C, Page 1
    By Nancy Harmon Jenkins

    MUSHROOM mania is the current epidemic sweeping through American produce markets. …

    ”Americans went from not knowing anything to going wild about the stuff,” said Giorgio DeLuca of Dean & DeLuca in SoHo. ”I don’t know why – maybe it’s part of the health thing.” …

    Another Italian import is the brown mushroom, also called Roma, cremini and prataioli – a common field mushroom closely related to the familiar cultivated button mushroom. … A host of less common wild mushrooms can occasionally be found in specialty-food shops, among them: … enormous Portobello mushrooms from Italy …

    The OED has added the quote “Enormous Portobello mushrooms from Italy” dated 1985, but attributed to the Lawrence (Kansas) Daily Journal-World, 11 Dec. — almost certainly a reprint from the New York Times, and the OED should have checked that. (This is the page cited, but I’d have to pay to get a readable image.)

  13. John Cowan says

    U.S. /ˌpɔrdəˈbɛloʊ/

    I am very doubtful about that /d/; it’s not in intervocalic position in AmE and so should not be voiced. I suppose non-rhotic AmE would be a different story.

    OK right before a vegetable

    “Sooner right before a lady’s finger” might have been better, not that I am any sort of expert on cryptics.

    Poland has long had its own Turks (Tatars, since 1410 or before)

    But by the mid-1500s they had pretty much abandoned Tatar for variously Polish, Lithuanian, or Belarusian, though they continued to use the Arabic script to write their new languages for some time (in the case of Belarusian, until the 1930s).

  14. I remember noticing that the name portobello seemed to pop up rather suddenly in the 1990s, with people using it as if the term had always been around. Prior to the explosion of interest in the mushrooms, I would have only associated to the word with Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

  15. ktschwarz says

    As I probably should’ve noticed, the New York Times writer was confused in including “Portobello” (and why capitalized?) in a list of *wild* mushrooms, and in saying they were “from Italy”. Enormous portobello mushrooms sold in New York City would have been cultivated, probably in Pennsylvania, which dominates the US in mushroom sales volume.

    Not a botanist, but I think the OED definition is not quite technically correct in calling portobello a “large brown variety” of mushroom: in the context of botany, “variety” implies that the distinction is heritable, but the largeness of portobellos is only a function of age, not genetics. I think MW’s “a large dark mature cultivated mushroom noted for its meaty texture that is of the same variety of button mushroom as the cremini” uses the word correctly in its technical sense. Any biologists here, please check.

  16. @JC: i entirely agree: i don’t think i’ve heard /d/ in rhotic u.s.an for the mushroom; non-rhotic (boston/nyc/nj), i think, uses a flap.

  17. ktschwarz says

    Merriam-Webster’s etymology (quoted by JKelly above) is actually better than the OED’s, imho, since it makes clear that prataiolo is a word of standard Italian and pratarolo is not.

    AHD, in 2011, was (I think quite rightly) skeptical enough to disregard this suggested etymology and leave it at “Origin unknown”. If it was coined for marketing purposes, pratarolo isn’t a sufficient explanation; the “-bella/o” could’ve been tacked on to suggest a nice Italian word that Americans are likely to know, but we don’t really know.

  18. I’ve also seen portabella, with an equally valid and equally pointless etymology. I would guess it’s a later twist on portobello by non-Italians.

  19. John Cowan says

    “Portobello” (and why capitalized?)

    Probably a copy editor looked it up in a gazetteer, found the Portobello Road, and went with that spelling and capitalization.

    non-rhotic (boston/nyc/nj)

    Most of New Jersey is firmly rhotic. I grew up in Newark only half an hour by car from where I have been living in the East Village for 40+ years now, and I remain as rhotic as ever. Labov says that Newark is non-rhotic as well as Jersey City, but he may mean the AAVE parts of it: I grew up in the North Ward, at the time a mostly Italian-American enclave. (Technically I was born in Montclair, but only because that happened to be where my mother’s obstetrician had hospital privileges.)

  20. To me, and perhaps to the marketers who coined it, portobello echoes porterhouse.

  21. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Portobello on the edge of Edinburgh was named after a South American battle, and I assume the Portobello Road is the same – the name is not quite either Spanish or Portugese, but definitely not Italian, so it’s interesting that it’s considered so definitely Italian for the mushroom.

  22. Keith Ivey says

    Despite my rhotic Americanness, for me a preceding /r/ doesn’t seem to affect the sound of intervocalic /t/ after a stressed syllable. “Portabello”, “porter”, “charter”, “hurtle”, “cater”, “bottle”, “vital”, “beating”, etc., all have the same sound. I don’t know whether to describe it as a d or a flap. The same is not true for a preceding /n/ or /l/ (“canter”, “melting”), in which case the /t/ is distinct from /d/.

  23. My Newark housemate (white) gave the local pronunciation as “Noork,” rhotic, one syllable.

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