Vegetable word histories

Published 9:25 am Thursday, July 27, 2017

Several vegetables common to our gardens come from the Latin word for cabbage “caulis.” Through a series of phonetic changes this Latin word came into Old English as cal and later became cole.

The leafy green plant known as kale is a phonetic variant of this Middle English word cole meaning cabbage while collard is a variation of colewort. Wort is a Middle English word for plant or root, from Old English wyrt.

Colewort, meaning literally “cabbage plant,” was shortened to col’ort and later became collard. Our word for cabbage comes from Middle English caboche borrowed from Old French caboce. In modern French “mon petite chou,” literally “my little cabbage,” is a term of endearment.

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In English, a cabbage patch is a place or thing of no importance, while cabbage head is a stupid person. In some dialects of American English cabbage night or cabbage stump night is the night before Halloween when people play pranks such as throwing cabbages on porches.

Some of our more common vegetable names come from Italian. Cauliflower is from Italian cavolo fiore, literally “cabbage flower.”

Broccoli, also from Italian, is the plural of broccoli, a cultivated form of cabbage, which in its origin was a more hearty form of cauliflower. Zucchini is the Italian plural form of zucchino, a diminutive of the word zucca “gourd.” This name first appeared in written English in 1929 spelled succhini.

Artichoke also made its way into English from Italian but only after it had passed from Arabic into Spanish. Arabic al-karsufa became Spanish alcachofa, which in turn became Italian articiocco, which was then borrowed into English as artichoke.

In the 16th and 17th centuries the English word turnepe designated the vegetable we know today as the turnip. This word was originally borrowed from Latin napus into Old English as noep. At some point English speakers added the word “turn” to the name, possibly in reference to the shape of the vegetable, creating the word that is familiar to us today.

Onion comes from Latin unio meaning “a single large pearl,” although in rustic or non-standard Latin unio was also used refer to an onion. Unio passed into Old French as oignon which then went into Middle English as oinyon, a not too distant form of the word we use today. In late 18th century English texts, it is not uncommon to find the variant form inions, representing a stigmatized pronunciation. Also from Latin is radish from the Latin word radix meaning “root.” Lettuce came into English by way of Old French laitue, whose speakers had borrowed the word from Latin lactuca. If you see a similarity to the Latin word for “milk” you are right. The Latin word made reference to the milky juice of plant. In Old French the plural form letues came into English as lettuce. At one point in English “lettuce” was slang for money.

Swiss chard, also known as silver beets or perpetual spinach, takes part of its name from Latin. Chard is a variant pronunciation of a word deriving from Latin cardo “thistle.”

It is not surprising that many vegetable names have come into English from indigenous languages by way of colonization. Squash is from the Native American language Narragansett. Their word for the vegetable, asquuta, was borrowed into English as squash and first appears in print in 1643. It is interesting to note that English already had the verb squash meaning “to flatten,” originally from Latin ex-quassare. It is certainly possible that the first borrowing influenced the phonetic form of the second borrowing. The English word potato is originally from the Taino word for “sweet potato,” batata. By 1526, Spanish had borrowed this word as patata, “potato,” preserving the word batata for “sweet potato.” English then borrowed the Spanish patata as potato.

Tomato is originally from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The Spanish conquistadores heard Nahuatl jitomatl and borrowed it as tomate, which was then borrowed into English as tomato. While tomatoes became popular around the Mediterranean after they were introduced to Spain, they were not cultivated in England until the 1590s because they were thought to be poisonous. This perception kept them from being grown in the U.S. until the mid 1700s. Before they were popular in the gardens of English speakers, they were known as “love apples.” The Italian word for tomato is pomo d’oro, literally “apple of gold” as the first varieties brought to Europe were golden in color. Botanically the tomato is a fruit, but the question remains in popular culture, is the tomato a fruit or is it a vegetable? The answer depends on where you live. The tomato is the state vegetable of New Jersey but it is the official fruit of Ohio.

Julia Palmer is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is