Issue 177, page 1

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going out of our gourds

We are now well into the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness - piles of leaves accumulate in backyards, migrating birds head for milder climes and the posh supermarkets have displays of ornamental gourds. Although botanists call it a fruit, the gourd is about as inedible as they get without actually being poisonous. A handsome group of gourdsSo why do people grow these things? The secret is that, when dried, the gourd's rind is as hard as wood. Around the world, many cultures have used gourds to make boxes, water bottles and even music. Latin American music uses many gourd  musical instruments including the maracas, the shekere (types of rattles) and a rasping scraper called the guiro (literally Spanish for "gourd"). Latin (not Latin American) for "gourd" was cucurbita which gave its name to the botanical category known as the Cucurbitaceae, the family which includes the gourds, melons and cucumbers. Even gourd itself is a much-altered form of cucurbita, by way of the Old French gourde

Some words only ever occur in the plural. Why, for instance, do we never hear of a single zucchino? [*See our hypothesis, below] As the Italian suffix -ino tells us, zucchino is a diminutive. Specifically, a zucchino is a small zuccha,  which is a "gourd" or "vegetable marrow". In Britain this vegetable is called a courgette, the diminutive of courge "gourd". Now almost eclipsed by its tastier, immature form, the vegetable marrow made its debut on English tables in the early 1800s. Its soft succulent interior gave it its name as as an analogy to the fatty marrow contained in bones. It was not the only fruit with this name, though. During this same period of the early 19th century the term vegetable marrow was also applied to the avocado. [A somewhat insecure vegetable, the avocado has gone by many noms de cuisine and once spent several years claiming to be an alligator pear.]

The English language adopted the medieval Latin cucumer in the 1300s then inserted an extraneous b during the 1500 to give us cucumber. The Latin word is thought to come from a Mediterranean language that pre-dates Latin. The pronunciation of cucumber as cow-cumber was universal at one time (due to influence from French coucombre), though by the early 1800s it survived only among members of England's upper class  The expression as cool as a cucumber dates from around 1730 when it was used in a poem by John Gay.

When pickled, a small cucumber is known as a gherkin, a word of mysterious origins. Similar words occur in many North European languages but it is thought that they must be borrowings from further east. In Greek, the closest relative is angurion, "water melon". Melon is actually the Greek word for "apple". Our usage came about as a shortened form of melopepon (Greek, "melon", from  melo- "apple" + pepon "gourd" ). The pepon component of melopepon went on to spawn its own words for melon-y plants. In Old French, it became pompion, "a pumpkin or melon" which went on to become pumpkin in English. In yet another case of culinary confusion, the name pompion was sometimes applied to the pompelmoose, a relative of the grapefruit which is also known as the pomelo  or shaddock

There was an identically spelled word Old French pompion which was applied to dangling jewels, baubles and ornaments which in Modern French has been changed to pompon and which we now spell this pompom. The two pompions had nothing in common but their spelling which is really a shame as we had prepared a screamingly funny joke concerning pompoms, melons and cheerleaders. Ah, well, perhaps it's for the best - this is, after all, a family page.

* The answer may lie in horticulture, not syntax. Gardeners are well aware of the excessive fecundity of this species. No one has ever surveyed his zucchini harvest and said, "You know, we really didn't grow enough this year." - M&M

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2002 TIERE
Last Updated 12/09/02 09:19 PM