I’ve been familiar with (and enjoyed) the big, meaty mushrooms called portobello for years, and I had assumed that that was, well, their name. But I just read the entry in the invaluable Food Lover’s Companion, which begins:

An extremely large, dark brown mushroom that is simply the fully mature form of the cremino, which in turn is a variation of the common cultivated white mushroom. 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.

Apparently it’s also called portabella; either way, the origin is unknown—and the word itself is still unknown to the OED. Surely the 1980s are recent enough that it should be possible to pinpoint the creation of the term?

Update. See now the Wordorigins thread on this topic, and the chapter excerpt linked from it; lots of interesting leads, still nothing definitive. How can an etymology be completely unrecoverable after only two decades?

Update (1/6/2007): See now Portabello redux, with the new OED entry and a suggested etymology.

I should add that there is an entry portobello in the OED, but it doesn’t seem mushroom-related:

? A kind of game resembling billiards.

1777 HOWARD Prisons Eng. 26 Gaming in various forms is very frequent: cards, dice, skittles, Missisippi and Portobello tables, billiards, fives, tennis, &c. Ibid. 198 One can scarcely ever enter the walls [of the King’s Bench Prison] without seeing parties at skittles, missisippi, portobello, tennis, fives, &c.


  1. dungbeattle says

    A possibility is that some some street seller in Portabella rd market in London took a spore from the ad world and finaly made it in to big time.

  2. Emmanuel Goldstein says

    You metafilter idiots are really something else. I refer to the thread where you Mefiers are jumping all over some supposed physics “crank”. Well, I am not qualified to judge his work (even though as a former nuclear plant operator and having a science degree, I know more than a little about it), but I thought you might want to know that the author of that webpage Bibhas R De (as per the copyright notice on the page) has science PhD from UCSD and according to google has a LOT of published papers in peer reviewed journal (see google query below). That looks like another Mefi gaggle of snooty web designers looking down their noses at a bad webpage, when actually they know little about the content. Please post this on the thread, as I cannot, seeing as how Matt Howie dislikes nonconformist political opinions:

  3. Shorter Goldstein: “You’re an idiot! Now post this on Metafilter for me!”

  4. Surely the 1980s are recent enough that it should be possible to pinpoint the creation of the term?
    [scene in OED breakroom:]
    “Hey, Bob, want to look through this pile of 1980s mushroom-advertising circulars? It’ll help us get a fix on … hey, Bob, why are you running away?”

  5. A truly excellent comment thread. Mebbe dungbeatle has something. Emmanuel Goldstein definitely has something and I hope it is not contagious. the_bone has something but fortunately it is not what EG has. And Zackary Sholem Berger has something I’d like to have, a nice vivid imagination + good ear.

  6. I… I don’t quite know what to say. Uh, Emmanuel (if that is your real name), this is not the Secret MeFi Portal. In fact, it has nothing to do with MeFi. And I have no interest in Bibhas R De and his degrees and/or papers. But thanks for dropping by and being so amiable and all!

  7. Ooh, EG totally mavved*! Haven’t seen that in a while.
    *posted comment for window A into window B, or equivalent

  8. So do the “Baby Bellas” now appearing on supermarket shelves, right next to the nearly identical-tasting common meadow mushrooms, represent a ploy based on a ploy? Are they in fact the original creminos nenamed to piggyback on the success of their gargantuan brethren, or something else entirely?

  9. “nenamed”: renamed
    (Sometime perhaps you could do a post on the inability of early-rising writers to percieve typos after about 4:00 p.m., no matter how many goldarned times they re-read something?)

  10. Wow! This Emmanuel Goldstein has me wondering…is this some new marketing ploy, maybe a very creative bot? Or was this something like a scene from the life of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind?
    Zackery Sholem Burger can fuse in an element of Mad Magazine or some other adult comic, say from Heavy Metal? Zack have you ever done comics?
    As for edible mushrooms, my best dining memory has been shitake mushrooms. Now what’s “shitake” mean?

  11. Decent question, so I looked it up. Forgot that the i in shiitake was long for a minute, so took me longer than it should have, but.
    Literally, the “take” part of the word is a Japanese word for mushroom (although the current common use word for mushroom is “kinoko”). There are two ways of writing “shiitake” according to the Kojien, and both have a mushroom kanji for the “take” part, so that seems rather simple.
    The “shii” part is more confusing: the more common spelling of this word uses the kanji for beech tree (“shii”, or more properly “shihi” for beech is attested back to the 8th century, and may refer more appropriately to the beech nut). The modern common use word for beech is “buna,” incidentally.
    The other varient for writing shiitake uses the kanji for “fragrance”–“shii” is not at all a common reading for this kanji, so it seems that in this case the kanji was picked for association rather than sound. So the etymology of shiitake still is rather vague to me. (And this, of course, is a lesson not to necessarily trust kanji when researching the etymology of words.)

  12. Because I don’t think I’m very clear above, when I say that “take” is a Japanese word for mushroom, I mean that indications are that it’s a native (Yamato) word, not a Sino-Japanese compound. Kun readings don’t always match up with nativeness (nativity?), but typically do. “Take”, like “kinoko” is a kun reading. “Take” seems to be attested much earlier. There was a distinction (which remains unclear) between “take” and “kusabira”, the latter of which was replaced by “kinoko” according to the Kojien entry on “kinoko.”

  13. When I saw this post and the first comment I too suspected it had something to do with Portobello Road, most likely the famous one in London, but there are many Portobello Roads all over the country, taking their name from an 18th century British naval victory.
    From Simon Schama’s History of Britain:

    In 1739, the new maritime patriotism got its first bona fide popular celebrity: Vice Admiral Edward Vernon. With just six ships Vernon had managed to capture the Spanish Caribbean depot of Porto Bello in the isthmus of Panama, the principal base for coastguards, in November 1739, and overnight he became the toast of the taverns, the clubs and the streets. Inns were renamed for him, and Porto Bello roads and streets sprang up not just in London but all over the country. Villages were renamed Porto Bello in Staffordshire, Sussex and Durham.

    A bit of Googling, however, brings up this article which tells us, without much in the way of evidence or explanation: “And in case you’re wondering, the Italian-originating portobellos have no connection to London’s Portobello Road.”
    Portobello is a popular toponym that predates the 1980s, but I can’t find out how it came to be applied to the mushroom.

  14. kristina: The American Heritage Dictionary says that shiitake is “Japanese : shi, oak + take, mushroom”; does this make sense to you?

  15. A quick check of this vegetarian’s “reference shelf” in the kitchen:
    The Mushroom Lover’s Mushroom Cookbook and Primer credits Italian immigrant farmers in Pennsylvania with cultivating mature cremini caps in imitation of some unspecified European mushroom and with naming them. Without any further details or references, of course.
    The Great Encyclopedia of Mushrooms for The Cultivated Mushroom Agaricus bisporus says, “The Cultivated Mushroom, or Common Store Mushroom and relatives such as the Portobello Mushroom are now cultivated on five continents and are an important export.” Meaning from France. And nothing more about names.
    Mushrooms Demystified: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fleshy Fungi, s.v. Agaricus bisporus, has only “Cultivated Mushroom; Button Mushroom”, which is interesting since this book is from 1979. It does have a photo of “Large specimens from a mushroom farm”, the largest of which we would clearly call a Portobello today if we saw it in the aisle at Whole Foods.

  16. In the grocery store down the street I’ve seen mushrooms in adjacent packages labeled “baby bella” and “cremini” — same brand, and seemingly identical mushrooms. It didn’t seem to be a case of transition from one name to another, but I should check back and see if they still have both.
    While we’re talking about produce, didn’t US grocery stores start labeling packages of mixed greens “mesclun salad” (or, as one label I saw had it, “mescaline salad”) during the 1980s as well?

  17. language hat: It makese sense, but I’m not quite certain of it. While the oak is in the beech family, there is a more specific term for oak even in classical Japanese (“kashiwagi” or just “kashiwa”), so I’m slightly leery of the AH definition.
    (And, alas, it still doesn’t tell me why it should be named for a tree–and I’m wondering, given that one of the other kanji for shiitake is ateji, to be honest. Or why there are at least two words for mushroom in classical Japanese either. Since I’d heard that nature abhors exact synonyms, I have to wonder what the distinction is. Or if there is one.)
    Speaking of tasty mushrooms, however, when doing shabu-shabu (which is also possible in vegetarian versions if you use a vegetarian stock to cook the food in, and stick to cooking vegetables), enoki mushrooms (“enokitake”) are simply divine.
    And the “enoki” in “enokitake” apparently is hackberry, “lotus tree”, or otherwise known as a type of elm. And “enokigusa” is a type of house plant. (I’m reminded of how European robins and American robins are very different birds, the way that tree names get reassigned in Japanese like this.)

  18. kristina,
    May be because in nature mushrooms grow under trees?
    What’s more, specific mushrooms grow under specific trees.
    For comparison – in Russian, f.ex., names of the mushrooms often indicate under wich tree they grow (подберёзовик – “under-the-bircher”).
    Ever do mushroom hunting? Very rewarding, you should try.

  19. I suspect Tatyana may well be right, and I envy her her Russian mushroom-hunting genes.

  20. Indeed, Tatyana is very probably right. A little searching reveals that both enokitake and shiitake are found on (both) elm and beech (and also oak). Deciduous, basically.
    (Presumably, the leaves of the enokigusa resemble an elm.)
    I hadn’t really thought about food terms in classical Japanese until this, though, (with the “shihi” which apparently refers more often to the acorns than the tree itself, in classical). I’m wondering what other mushroom words there might be (particularly since mushrooms were also considered potent medicine–at least some of them).
    To bring things back to the portabella (or portabello, or portobello), Google indicates that it’s not much used for mushrooms in Japanese (at least if you modify the search with “mushroom” or “food”). I wonder how prevalent it is in other languages? (That is, how far has the marketing virus spread?)

  21. Mushroom gathering here in Oregon is a big business, with occasional gunfights between competing bands of gatherers. Not making this up. Japan pays a hefty price for the right shroom.
    My brother, decades ago, told me that Alaskan salmon fishermen can make more money off salmon eggs — also a delicacy in Japan — than they do on salmon meat.

  22. matsutake is pine-mushroom, continuing the theme.

  23. (I’m going to attempt kanji again, this time using Mozilla. Let’s see if it works….)
    Trees aren’t the only ones getting in on it. There’s also:
    aitake 藍茸 (plantname/indigo + mushroom–there are two varieties called this, both edible)
    amitake 網茸 (net + mushroom, edible)
    aritake 蟻茸 (ant + mushroom)
    awatake 粟茸 (millet + mushroom, edible)
    iwatake 岩茸/石茸 (stone/boulder + mushroom, edible)
    usutake 臼茸 (mortar + mushroom, edible)
    uzuratake 鶉茸 (quail + mushroom, and a top variety of matsutake)
    karakasatake 傘茸 (umbrella + mushroom, edible–also called nigiritake, kanji not found in the Kojien)
    kawatake/koutake 革茸 (leather + mushroom) or 茅茸 (thatch + mushroom)
    kawaratake 瓦茸 (katalpa + mushroom)
    kimuratake 黄紫茸 (yellow + purple + mushroom–not a mushroom. Broomrape, which is more commonly known as 御肉, or literally “honorific + meat.” Since it was used as a medicine in China, that’s probably why the “mushroom” name.)
    And as this is getting ridiculous (and I’m not even done with the k-initial entries), I’ll leave it here for now. So far, kawatake is the only one like shiitake that I’ve seen yet with two very different ways to write it in kanji. (Shiitake is 椎茸 or 香蕈, the later mushroom kanji being mostly out of use these days.) This may indicate the age of the term, that there’d be such a different way of writing it. Since the Kojien doesn’t give a first use citation for shiitake the way it does for kawatake, my only clue for how old the word shiitake is is that the term was picked up for the name of a kabuki wig. (So, presumably before 1900, and probably before 1800.) The 椎茸髱 is also called the 葵髱 (aoitabo), or “hollycock wig.” The Morohashi dictionary might give a clue for when the various spellings of shiitake came from, but I don’t own a set yet, alas.
    (Incidentally, I heard what registered to my mind as a great extended seaweed pun in an old play the other day. Pity I don’t remember all the details.)

  24. kitchen countertops

  25. I lament the drop in quality of the blog spam on Language Hat.

  26. Yeah, really. From pr0n to kitchen countertops.
    *feels age setting in*

  27. Although mushrooms do igrow on the ground…
    [Entire comment copied and pasted — twice! — from an article by Rabbi Zushe Blech; I’ve deleted all but the opening phrase. To add insult to injury, it has nothing to do with the word portobello. What is it with the comment plagiarists today? –LH]

  28. If billiards is a connection …. back in the 70s in an old spit and sawdust pub I recall the billiards table. There were holes in the far end of the table which had something which resembled a portobello mushroom positioned in front of the hole …. maybe that could be the connection. The aim was to pot the ball into one of the holes without knocking the guard into the hole which would then cover it and make it impossible to pot any balls into it.

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