Issue 198, page 1

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Fruits of Summer

Spring may still seem far away to us in the Northern Hemisphere, but, at least in California, we are seeing what are typically summer fruits in the winter-dreary produce sections of our local grocery stories.  They are probably coming from South America, but we don't care - strawberries in winter, at affordable prices, are wonderful!  So where did all the interesting names that we have for berries come from?

Speaking of strawberries, why are they named thus?  Did they grow in the straw?  That's probably not the source of the name.  Strawberry dates back to Old English, when it was streawberige.  The streaw- portion does mean "straw", but no one is certain what the "straw" referred to originally.  It may have been a reference to the achenes* scattered across the fruit (they are what we all think are seeds!), looking like bits of straw.  It may also have been the plant's runners.  Whatever the source of the name, the fruit has been called strawberry since at least the late 10th century.  Strangely, none of the other Germanic languages has a word like it!

What about the raspberry?  Is it raspy?  Well, it was originally called simply a rasp.  This is thought to be a back-formation from raspis, another term for a raspberry.  Rasp dates from 1555 in the written record, and raspis from about 1532.  One questionable source claims that raspis is Old English and refers to the "raspy" or hairy surface of raspberries - "raspy" when compared to the smoother, shinier surface of the blackberry (discussed below).  There is no evidence to support this.  By the way, the -berry was added in the early 17th century.  Interestingly, that coincides with the time that the raspberry was first cultivated in England.  Prior to that wild varieties had been eaten there since at least Iron Age times.  This suggests that there may be an Old English word for the raspberry, but we have not yet found it.

The blackberry is easy, but did you know that it is also known as the brambleberryBramble is the modern version of the Old English word for the blackberry bush - brembelBlackberry and brambleberry have both been used since at least the year 1000.  Oh, and English broom is cognate with bramble, as is Old High German bramma "wild rose".  The common denominator here are the thorns: the hypothetical Germanic *braemoz means "thorny bush".

Gooseberry is a bit of an enigma, like raspberry.  It may simply be named after the goose, but why?  Since there is no obvious explanation for that, people have wanted to find another explanation, such that it is a corruption/Hobson-Jobsonism of another term.  Interestingly, the Germans call this berry krausbeere, and the Dutch kruisbezie, both meaning "curly berry", perhaps referring to the sometimes curling veins in the fruit, and some think gooseberry could have arisen from one of those foreign words.  The OED thinks that a derivation from a hypothetical gorseberry or groseberry might actually hold some water, because groser (16th century) and groset (Scottish, 18th century), meant gooseberry.  There is even a word gozell "gooseberry", which gives us at least one example of that first r having been dropped.  Those forms derive from the French groseille "gooseberry".  

Mmm, we do believe it is time for a bowl of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries with cream.  

* An achene is "a small, dry, one seeded fruit that does not open to liberate the seed" (from the OED).

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