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.

  29. ktschwarz says

    the new OED entry and a suggested etymology

    That phrasing makes it sound like the OED’s etymology was a new idea, though it was just a simplified version of Merriam-Webster’s speculative “perh. alter. of It prataiolo”, which had been quoted at Wordorigins (surviving links: January 2005, August 2002). This had been published by 1999 in an updated printing of MW’s 10th Collegiate.

    I don’t find it that surprising that the origin was obscure by 2004, at least from public sources. Food writers are not lexicographers (as we’ve recently been reminded), and apparently the marketers of the 1980s were reticent about the fact that it was a newly coined name. By 2004 the actual coining could have been still in living memory somewhere, and possibly in written records of private organizations too, but digging that deep is beyond the scope of any dictionary. By 2023, well, it *might* still be possible; maybe local newspapers are now digitally searchable, or somebody at Penn State’s Mushroom Research Center might know.

  30. ktschwarz says


    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.

    Solid reference — author Amy Farges had run a mushroom-distributing company since the late 1980s — but the “imitation” part is a misquote. The actual book reads:

    The portobello originated in Pennsylvania’s (yes, Pennsylvania!) mushroom-farming corridor. There, Italian immigrant farmers cultivated the brown mushrooms they remembered from the old country. These cremini, it turned out, developed large caps when left to grow a few more days. The farmers gave the large variety its own name, portobello.

    That’s more open than most commercial growers about the facts that it was developed in Pennsylvania and that the name was new. It *doesn’t* say they were imitating anything. The claim about “brown mushrooms they remembered from the old country” is probably close to true, too: it’s corroborated by the book Vegetables From Amaranth to Zucchini linked in the post’s first update, which says the brown strain of A. bisporus was re-introduced to the US from Italy in the early 1980s.

    MMcM also quotes a 1979 book which doesn’t mention cremini or portobello. We can
    push the terminus post quem even later: Mad About Mushrooms (1984) doesn’t mention them either (but does mention enoki, shiitake, morel, cèpes/porcini, and chanterelle); neither does The Biology and Technology of the Cultivated Mushroom (1985). There’s also a 1986 book Wild and Exotic Mushroom Cultivation in North America that mentions both of them as appearing in supermarkets “in the last year” and “now being grown in the U.S.”

  31. ktschwarz says

    the fully mature form of the cremino

    Despite the usage of the excellent Food Lover’s Companion, the singular form with -o gets relatively little use in English, and all current dictionaries have entered “cremini”, not “cremino”. After all, that’s the only form you see in recipes and stores, which always deal with plural mushrooms. If I had to refer to just one of them, I’d be fine with “a cremini”; “a cremino” would feel like an affectation.

    And this name is just as recent as portobello! Probably it was coined in the same marketing campaign — before the 1980s, they were just called brown mushrooms. At least cremino is an actual Italian word; however, as far as I could find out, it’s only used in Italian for a chocolate with a cream layer, not for a mushroom. (Italian speakers, is that right?)

    The OED still hasn’t entered “cremini” yet. Way overdue.

  32. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    (Italian speakers, is that right?)

    The chocolate is the only meaning of cremino immediately accessible to me in Italian, but then I must be a little biased because I’m from Turin and so is that chocolate.

    More broadly, Italian Wikipedia has two pages for cremino: one for the chocolate and the other for the Algida ice cream on a stick. My word of choice for the latter is the generic ricoperto, but Algida is and probably always has been the leading brand of pre-packaged ice cream in Italy, so I imagine other Italians may use its product name as a generic term. That option is available to me with pinguino, the name previously given to the same item by a Turinese ice-cream parlor.

    Finally, Google returns some small creamy cheeses being sold as cremini. That doesn’t ring a bell, but it’s a pretty descriptive name and also doesn’t give me the feeling they’re calling cheese after a chocolate.

    The mushroom is a champignon if bought and a prataiolo if picked. So I’m with cremini as the (American?) English singular.

  33. “a cremino” would feel like an affectation.

    Yes, it would sound as silly as “spaghetto.”

  34. I’ve been known to say “I ate a raviolo.”

  35. Stu Clayton says

    “I ate a raviolo” is precise, therefore licit. To check whether the spaghetti is done, I lift out one spaghetto and stress-test it. I can’t really tell whether it is al dente, because I don’t have enough teeth.

  36. Keith Ivey says

    The plural pasta names becoming mass nouns in English makes more sense than panini becoming a singular. Individual sandwiches are mentioned much more often than individual pieces of pasta.

  37. I don’t remember ever seeing “cremini” at any grocery store, only “crimini”, which I heard pronounced mostly with /ai/.

  38. >I lift out one spaghetto

    I’m the same. I always use the dual when I’m visited by seraphayim. “A pair of seraphim” would sound ridiculous.

  39. ktschwarz says

    Thanks, Giacomo. Yes, both cremini|crimini and portobello|portabella are more American than British, though both have some appearances in British sources (after filtering out Portobello as a placename and any other non-mushroom uses).

  40. “a spaghetto”

    Russian children do speak about makaronina often enough (wtih a Russian singulative suffix). Adults do it too, but less often.

  41. ktschwarz says

    Porcini is another one where English speakers are not quite sure of the singular. Most dictionaries admit “porcini” only as a plural, but usage of “porcino” as a singular is very uncommon in English, and the New York Times has had the headline “A Poor Man’s Porcini” and occasional references to “porcinis”.

    It’s also another name established in English by the mushroom wave of the 1980s. At least this time it’s a genuine Italian name, though *why* they’re called “piggy” is disputed. The OED has a couple of earlier citations (their first is 1954, and it’s easy to antedate that in Google Books), but until the 1980s it was rare and treated as a foreign word. Before then, if it was mentioned at all in English, it was more often called by the French name cèpe, or in Anglicized spelling “cep”; that name is now mostly eclipsed by porcini.

  42. I’ve been known to say “I ate a raviolo.”

    Sure, but try going into Panera’s and ordering “unum paninum” and see how far that gets you.

  43. David Marjanović says


    That’s a brand of ice cream on sticks that has a different name in almost every country in Europe. For example, it’s Eskimo in Austria and Langnese (yes, with ngn) in Germany. But the logo is always in the same font.

  44. This reminded me that I have begun to have a gut feeling, when reading about ancient inscriptions, that the plural of graffito should really be *graffitos. That’s because graffiti feels too much like a mass noun, without count usage. I wouldn’t have had this inclination when I was younger, before I felt entirely natural about using graffito, but now that I am, it seems to cry out for a regular plural! I’m not the only one, either; Google indicates that the word is definitely out there.

  45. I think in dealing with ancient inscriptions it should be graphito, graphitones.

  46. That’s a brand of ice cream on sticks that has a different name in almost every country in Europe.

    The umbrella term is “Heartbrand”. Per Wikipedia there are some curious combinations:

    Algida (Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Greece, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Malta, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Turkey)
    Bresler (Chile)
    Cargills (Sri Lanka)
    Eskimo (Austria)
    Frigo (Spain)
    Frisko (Denmark)
    GB Glace (Finland, Norway, Sweden)
    Glidat Strauss (Israel)
    Good Humor (United States)
    HB Ice Cream (Ireland and Northern Ireland)
    Helados La Fuente (Colombia)
    Holanda (Mexico, Central America)
    Ingman (Finland)
    Inmarko (Russia)
    Kibon (Argentina, Brazil, Falkland Islands)
    Kwality Wall’s Ice Cream (Bhutan, Brunei, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka)
    Langnese (Germany)
    Lusso (Switzerland)
    Miko (France)
    Napoca (Romania)
    Ola Ice Cream (Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, South Africa)
    Olá (Cape Verde, Macau, Portugal)
    Pingüino (Ecuador)
    Selecta (Comoros, Philippines, Tanzania)
    Streets (Australia, New Zealand)
    Tio Rico (Venezuela)
    Wall’s (Canada, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Puerto Rico, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, United Kingdom)

  47. the French name cèpe, or in Anglicized spelling “cep”

    I recently challenged “cep” in a Scrabble match, being familiar only with “cèpe”. I might have known better, since I had already starting watching The Last of Us, where cordyceps is (are?) the primary antagonist.

  48. You’re off the hook: those are only coincidentally similar. Cèpe is from Latin cippus ‘stake’, while cordyceps is (horror! cover the children’s eyes!) a Greco-Latin hybrid, from Greek κορδῡ́λη ‘club’ and Latin -ceps ‘headed’.

  49. ktschwarz says

    Moving on to “shiitake”: as of 2004

    The American Heritage Dictionary says that shiitake is “Japanese : shi, oak + take, mushroom”

    That actually was not right, and was corrected in the 2011 edition (which raised the standards for East Asian etymologies considerably) to:

    Japanese : shii, the East Asian species of chinquapin Castanopsis cuspidata (on the dead logs of which the mushroom is often cultivated) + take, mushroom.

    The shii is not an oak, though the genus Castanopsis does belong to the family Fagaceae, which also includes oaks, beeches, and chestnuts. The previous edition must not have understood precisely what species was meant.

    And what’s that name “chinquapin|chinkapin”? Obviously not Japanese; it’s from Algonquian, and was originally borrowed for a chestnut species of the southeastern US. But then the name was extended to cover several other species of trees: two called chinquapin oak, another genus in the western US, and the Castanopsis genus of Asia, which is closely related. The previous AHD edition also had a definition of chinquapin that left out the Asian genus, which was also corrected in 2011.

  50. There was a boom in cultivation of вешенки in Russia (pleurotus ostreatus) about the same time…

  51. John Cowan says

    Gale told me that when was a girl, her father would call her “chinkapin eyes”. When she teased me by calling me “blue eyes”, I would counter-tease her with “chinkapin eyes” too: they were fairly dark brown.

    If you look at the AHD definition of mahogany, it’s this:

    1.a. Any of several tropical American evergreen trees of the genus Swietenia of the family Meliaceae, especially S. mahagoni and S. macrophylla, valued for their hard, reddish-brown wood.
    b. The wood of any of these trees, used in making furniture and musical instruments.
    2.a. Any of several trees of the family Meliaceae having similar wood, such as African mahogany.
    b. Any of several trees of other families having similar wood, such as Philippine mahogany.
    c. The wood of any of these trees.
    3. A moderate reddish brown.

    So it starts with a fairly narrow definition and then widens it until you could summarize it as “A reddish-brown dense hardwood tree” without any reference to Linnaean names at all.

  52. Did Brecht name his fictional city, Mahagonny, after the tree, Mahagoni? Why?

  53. In Ireland, mahogany is used to make gaspipes

  54. @Y: From this discussion (in German) I take that one explanation is that Brecht used the tree colour to allude to the brown shirts and the red flag of the Nazis, but it looks like this is a later rationalisation; the source of the name seems to be a pop song from the 1920s Komm nach Mahagonne “Come to Mahoganne” (text quoted in the discussion). That shifts the problem to where this name comes from, but as Mahagonne seens to be located in a warm climate, it could be a modification of the tree name

  55. In the back of my mind I always thought that “Mahagonny” sounded to him kind of like an American town name.

  56. That may well be the case; in artistic choices several influencing factors can come together.

  57. Jayne : That’s Monix Billiards, used to be popular in the ’90s in Bulgaria (at least in my neighbourhood).

  58. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Cremini. 1€ a piece, but worth it.

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