Kerim Friedman alerted me to a post at Prince Roy’s Realm about “why Taiwanese (and apparently only Taiwanese) refer to Western cabbage (as opposed to Napa Vally cabbage, or 白菜 bok choy) as 高麗菜 instead of the more orthodox Mandarin usages 洋白菜, 包心菜, or 捲心菜.” There is apparently a popular theory that the word (which a commenter renders as “Gao Li Cai”) derives from the name of Korea, but much more likely to me seems the idea that it’s a borrowing from a Germanic language (cf. English cole, German Kohl); if you have information or ideas about this, by all means share them. (The comment thread is worth your attention as well; Mark Anthony Jones points out that Cato the Elder claimed “every illness… could be cured by eating loads of boiled cabbage. The reason why Romans survived six centuries without the need for doctors, he said, was because of their habit of eating boiled cabbage three times a day!”)


  1. This is interesting… especially when one considers what cabbage actually is. As I’ve written in other places “the differences between broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, collards, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts are all below the rank of species. In other words, botanically speaking, the differences between cabbage and broccoli (and all the others) are tantamount to the differences between a Roma tomato and a Big Boy tomato.”
    The cole/kohlis really reference to a group of plants: Samual Pepys (and others) called them coleworts. I don’t know about Cato the Elder but the intellectually tremendous Pliny the Elder wrote about cabbage when he attempted to write about EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD. (What a guy he was.)
    I drivel on endlessly about these things in the non-scholarly (and maybe even simplistic) essays on my own blog, should you care to read on. Brassica oleracea | Pliny the Elder
    Seems like I may have carried on about this in other places too.
    Bottom line: It is interesting that there are so many different words for what is, essentially, the same thing.
    (This isn’t really a linguistic comment… I’m just hoping to add something here – as I usually cannot.)

  2. Thought people might be interested in the following, a site which exhaustively lists the names of vegetables in a number of languages, especially Asian. But I couldn’t find our Taiwanese “Korean Cabbage” term.

  3. Daan Milton says

    I’ve always assumed napa is a Chinese word; nothing to do with the wine-producing Valley In California.
    Am I wrong?

  4. My thanks to language hat for linking me here. This kind of stuff really fascinates me. As far as I know, ‘napa’ is not a word of Chinese origin. Wikipedia places it in an American Indian language’

  5. I too was a little surprised to see chinese (“bok choy”) cabbage referred to as “Napa Valley” cabbage. The Napa is certainly an eastern word and is unlikely to have anything to do with the California place name. Contrary to what Prince Roy says Wikipedia explains Napa as coming from:” ???, Cantonese name for ???? or ??”. I have no idea how those would be pronounced in Chinese, so I can’t comment on that. In Japanese however the word “nappa” ??? is transparently etymological (it means “vegetable leaves”) and this term refers to just about any type of green leafy vegetable.

  6. Oops, sorry for those botched Chinese characters. But I don’t have the time to fix them.

  7. And one mustn’t forget the veritable “A” Vegetable of Taiwan.

  8. Siganus Sutor says

    Cato the Elder claimed “every illness… could be cured by eating loads of boiled cabbage.
    Maybe they didn’t eat boiled cabbage in Carthage, and that’s why in the end they got “deleted”.

  9. It’s possible that ‘napa’ is from a Cantonese cognate: the characters given in the article read in Mandarin as ‘yabai’. Hopefully a Cantonese speaker will weigh in. At least in modern Mandarin it’s difficult to see the connection.
    I suppose the association of this cabbage with Napa Valley of California makes sense: early Chinese immigrants to CA came primarily from Guangdong province, and many of them farmed in the Bay Area.

  10. The characters that correspond to the Mandarin ‘yabai’, 芽白, is pronounced /ŋaː paːk/ in Cantonese (FYI, the full name of the cabbage in Cantonese is 黃芽白, /wɔːŋ ŋaː paːk/, meaning “yellow-sprout white [cabbage]”).
    I’ve never heard of this as the origin for the term “napa” though, and to my ears, /ŋaː paːk/ sounds very different from the English pronunciation of napa. Looking purely at the IPA transcription though, it does look possible.

  11. BTW, to hear for yourself what the Cantonese sounds like, here are some sound files (courtesy Chinese University of Hong Kong):
    /ŋaː/ (with low falling tone contour) – http://humanum.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/Lexis/lexi-can/sound/ngaa4.wav
    /paːk/ (with low level tone contour) – http://humanum.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/Lexis/lexi-can/sound/baak6.wav
    Note: the sound files deliberately lengthen the duration of the vowel longer than what would normally be said by most speakers. I suppose the reason for this was to make the pronunciation clearer for the listener.

  12. Thanks Claw, I’m convinced. ‘Napa’ is certainly a plausible Cantonese cognate. I wonder if what we’re seeing here is a case of linguistic coincidence: early Chinese immigrants to CA from Guangdong grew a vegetable they called ‘napa’, which reinforced itself among Americans because of its proximation with the ‘Napa valley’, hence ‘napa valley cabbage’.
    Another alternative: does anyone know where the so-called ‘napa valley cabbage’ originated? Perhaps the Chinese first saw it in California; if so it could very well be the term migrated into Cantonese from English, and not the other way around. The immigrants chose the Chinese name 黃芽白 because of its proximation to the English ‘napa’.
    Very interesting…

  13. I’ve only seen it labeled ‘Napa’ in stores, never ‘Napa Valley’.
    Google hits:
    “napa cabbage”: 151,000
    “nappa cabbage”: 19,500
    “napa valley cabbage”: 48

  14. Siganus Sutor: Perhaps a dyspeptic Cato mistakenly said ‘Delenda est Cabagio’ (Okay, okay, I know that’s not Latin….).

  15. Siganus Sutor: Perhaps a dyspeptic Cato mistakenly said ‘Delenda est Cabagio’ (Okay, okay, I know that’s not Latin….).

  16. Roy,
    The Chinese term you cite, huang ya bai, is also the Shanghai term for that particular form of cabbage, so it probably didn’t enter Chinese from Englsih through Cantonese.
    I grew up in California and we have never called it Napa Valley cabbage; in fact it is always “nappa” in the grocery stores there. I don’t think anyone there connects it with the Napa Valley. The Napa valley doesn’t connect in anyone’s mind with truck farming anyway.

  17. I’m not completely convinced. Cantonese speakers don’t say just 芽白; instead they always use the full term 黃芽白. And to English-speaking ears, 芽白 sounds more like ‘ah-bok’ than ‘napa’ (the 白 is the same ‘bok’ in the English loanword ‘bok choy’, from 白菜 /paːk tsʰɔːi/ in Cantonese). The only thing is that the IPA transcription /ŋaː paːk/ does look deceptively similar to napa.

  18. http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Cookbook:Nappa_Cabbage
    The name may be of Japanese origin or may be a Chinese word first exposed to English speakers through Japan. The Japanese script is: 菜っ葉 for Chinese cabbage, (in Japan, it is a generic term for leaf vegetables.)

  19. The word nappa was introduced into California by Japanese-American immigrants. It is felt in Japan to be a native Japanese word, not a Sino-Japanese compound, and is analyzed (as caffeind indicated above),as a compound word, from the native Japanese na, vegetable, and ha, leaf, neither of which are related to Chinese words. The spelling “napa” is a natural adaptation by non-Asian supermarket clerks.

  20. Terry Collman says

    “gao li cai” looks like “curly kale” to me, although this is probably just a coincidence – unless the Taiwanese were visited by Irish or West Country sailors likely to be fond of this particularly delicious member of the cabbage family, celebrated in song …

  21. In an unrelated entry today on Language Log, Mark Liberman counsels “(it’s always a mistake not to check the OED) .”
    While it offers nothing really new, it pulls it all together.

    [< Japanese regional and colloquial nappa (leaves of) brassica, esp. for use as food < na brassica + -pa, combining form of ha leaf (cf. happa leaf, common colloquial reduplication of ha).
      The usual Japanese word for napa cabbage is hakusai, lit. ‘white vegetable’ < the Middle Chinese base of Chinese (Mandarin) báicài PE-TSAI n., Chinese (Cantonese) baahk choi BOK CHOY n..] 

    Bostonians who visit the BPL’s Crooks, Rogues, and Maids Less Than Virtuous Defoe exhibit will want to look out for the copy of An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa open to a page with alphabet fold-out that explains, “The reason why the Japan Language differs from that of the Chineſe and Formoſans.” You others can find the punchline online.

  22. “The word nappa was introduced into California by Japanese-American immigrants. ”
    Makes sense; Japanese-Americans were active in the truck farming industry in California, along with Northern Italians, while Cantonese-Americans were not.

  23. I recently took up study of Chinese in Taiwan, and soon discovered all kinds of defecative aspects concerning Pinyin systems. Does anyone know the history of the creation of Tongyong Pinyin? This is so that I can defame them for their rather pointless and unskillful product.

  24. “Gao” means ‘tall’ or ‘high’ which is often a short version of ‘high mountain’ because most of their cabbage (especially the high quality stuff) is grown in the high mountains. c.f. Gao Shan Cha= High mountain tea, a high quality green tea only grown above a certain altitude. In short: no, this has nothing to do with… “ze Germans.”

  25. I like the idea of the defecative aspects of Tongyong Pinyin.

  26. Man, I’d totally forgotten about this thread.

  27. marie-lucie says

    I don’t remember reading this thread, but I am surprised it does not mention the Portuguese cabbage: a tall plant (taller than me, so perhaps 6 ft) with sparse but very large dark green leaves, that do not bunch up, so you can pick just one or two at a time for a dish, and you don’t even have to crouch to pick them. They (or you) don’t get dirty either!

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