It’s like comparing apples to…pumpkins?

Autumn means pumpkins. They sit atop our porch steps and grace our desks in miniature. Pumpkin pies cool on our windows sills. Pumpkin-shaped candies overstuff our grocery shelves. Pumpkin spice flavors our lattes – and just about everything else marketers can get their hands on. Let’s carve into this word pumpkin and scoop out all of its timely etymological seeds.

“Pumpkin.” It’s Greek to me. Image by Kyle Tait, courtesy of


The earliest record the Oxford English Dictionary finds for pumpkin comes in the form of an insult. In 1647, Nathaniel Ward, a caustic-witted, English-born Puritan who fled to (now) Massachusetts, published a pamphlet opposing the tolerance of other Christian sects, among other topics. In one edition of his screed, called The Simple Cobler of Aggawam in America, Ward bemoans the “pumpkin-blasted brains” of his fellow settlers, whose diet, apparently, depended too much upon this fruit. (Yes, the pumpkin is technically a fruit.) And indeed, Boston, Mass. was nicknamed Pumpkinshire in the 18th century. 

Pumpkin pie, meanwhile, dates to the 1650s. By the 1680s, pumpkin, thanks to its rotundity, was mocking “stupid” people, as was pumpkin-head come centuries later. Pumpkin, of course, was repurposed by the 1900s as a term of endearment. And in 19th-century US slang, saying someone or something was “some pumpkins” was to call them  “important” or “impressive.”

Pumpkin is a variant of pumpion, itself an alteration of pompion. Pompion, attested in the early 1500s, is borrowed from the French pompon, which names a kind of melon. Pumpkins are native to the Americas, so, when English settlers encountered this squash, they likened it to the plump fruit they were more familiar with back home. English speakers ended up fashioning the ending of pompion with -kin, a Germanic-based, diminutive suffix that survives in some surnames like Watkins and handful of words, including napkin.

The French pompon grew out of the Latin pepō, in turn from the Greek πέπων (pepon); both named types of gourds and melons eaten when ripe. Ripe is the key: Greek’s pepon meant “ripe” (or “yellow”), stemming from the verb πέσσειν (pessien), “to cook.” This pessein and cook, believe it or not, were concocted in the same etymological kitchen: they share the Proto-Indo-European root *pekw-, “to cook” or “ripen.” Concocted and kitchen also come from this root, thanks to a series of complicated sound changes that took place long ago.

And inside melon hides the very word pumpkin. Melon is shorted from Latin’s mēlopepō, from the Greek μηλοπέπων (melopepon). Melopepon marries μῆλον (melon) and πέπων (pepon). As for melon? That actually means apple, making melopepon “ripe apple.”

So, pumpkin means “melon,” and melon means “apple.” The ancients really need to get their fruit and veggies sorted out. This Halloween, I think I’ll just stick with candy.

m ∫ r ∫

citrus, part II

Fast Mash

  • Orange enters English in the 14th-c. from the French orenge (pomme d’orenge) via Spanish naranja, Portuguese laranja, Italian narancia
  • The Romance forms of orange ultimately go back to Arabic naranj, Persian narang, Sanskrit naranga; may be rooted in Tamil (South India) naru, for fragrant
  • Also growing in bunches, grapefruit is indebted to grape, from French graper (gather), from Germanic root *krappon (hook, used to so gather)

Last February, my fiancée and I travelled to Istanbul. Winding through its dense and storied streets, we stopped often to sample foods from street vendors and stalls, such as the savory pastry of börek, sesame-ringed simit, or cups of golden-hued çay, the tea steaming from its tulip-shaped glass.

On one afternoon outing, after my wanderings led us—yet again—through that bustling center of Old Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar, we took a seat a tiny table at a tinier stall just at the market’s perimeter. For refreshment, I stuck with çay, happily substituting my coffee addiction with Turkey’s go-to beverage. (No native is really Turkish coffee in Istanbul.) My fiancée, however, went for something new: freshly squeeze pomegranate juice.

In my traveller’s Turkish, always received warmly, I ordered: “Lütfen bir çay ve bir nar istiyorum.” Literally, please one tea and one pomegranate (juice) I would like.

Turkish is what is called an agglutinative language. That means it forms complex words by “gluing together” individual morphemes. And a morpheme is the smallest grammatical unit in a language.

So, in English, cats has two morphemes: cat and s, which marks the plural. Other languages like Turkish glue a lot more morphemes together than English does. Take istiyorum: in one word, it combines morphemes for verb tense, aspect, person, and number to communicate “I want,” “I am wanting,” or “I would like.”

If I wanted to negate that statement in English, I would say, “I do not want.” I need two new morphemes, in this case two whole words, and I place them in the right order in the expression. But a Turkish person would add a morpheme right smack dab in the middle of the whole word: istemiyorum. It gets really complicated, really fast. And it’s a totally different way of doings things. Cool, right?

Anyways, it’s the Turkish nouns in my drink order that interest me here. Yes, the Turkish çay is related to chai, pronounced the same and ultimately from the Chinese. But I didn’t expect that nar would be related to orange. Though thousands of miles away, with the humble nar I was in fact much closer to home than imagined.


As lexicographer Eric Partridge put its, “The descent of orange is long, yet clear.” Well, “clear” is his opinion.

In the 14th-century, Middle English picks up orange (and at some point the fruit itself?) from the French orenge (now orange). The French occurred in the phrase pomme d’orenge, taken from a similar Medieval Latin construction. French picked up pomme from Latin’s pomus, which meant fruit and later apple. (Cf. the Dutch oranjeappel and the Scots appil orange.  Also consider French’s pomme de terre, earth-apple, for potato.)

The Latin was taken from the Italian narancia (now arancia), and the form of the word travelled like all the sailors who brought the fruit over from Asia.

Here is a study in some orange (cognates):

  • Provençal, auranja
  • Catalan, taronja
  • Spanish, naranja
  • Portuguese, laranja
  • Italian, narancia/arancia/melarancia
  • Rumanian, naranta
  • Greek, nerantzi

The Spanish naranja seems to be the point of diffusion from orange’s oldest crop: the Arabic naranj, Persian narang, and the Sanskrit naranga (orange tree).

The Sanskrit, in turn, is probably related to terms in two of that subcontinent’s hundreds of other tongues: Tamil’s naram/naru (which Partridge glosses as fragrant) and Tulu’s narengi. It’s not every day one gets to talk about Tamil or Tulu. Both are the in the Dravidian family, a non-Indo-European language primarily spoken in Southern India and Northern Sri Lanka.

At this point, you’re probably seeing nar as a common thread. In Persian, nar named the pomegranate, which fruit and term spread to the Turkic peoples. Hence, a freshly squeezed cup of nar in Istanbul. It was delicious, too.

So, what happened to the and the in English’s orange?

The o- may have been influenced by the southern French city of Orange (later tied up in Dutch royalty and Irish Protestantism). Or or, the French for gold, due to the fruit’s color, from the Latin aurum.

And the n? Perhaps due to something called misdivision, or metanalysis, which happens when words are broken down at the wrong boundary. A few examples illustrate:

  • An apron? Originally, a napron.
  • A newt? An ewte.
  • Nickname? First, an eke name, with eke meaning also or additional.
  • An umpire? More like a noumpre (from French for odd number).
  • And how about one where there is no definite article (a, an)? Tawdry originally comes from St. Audry’s lace.

At some point, the definite articles—as in un naranja, une narange, or una narancia— could have promoted the loss of the initial n. Say them out loud and it’s easy to be convinced.

And here’s just a little more zest in the life of orange from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

The tree’s original range probably was northern India. The Persian orange, grown widely in southern Europe after its introduction in Italy 11c., was bitter; sweet oranges were brought to Europe 15c. from India by Portuguese traders and quickly displaced the bitter variety, but only Modern Greek still seems to distinguish the bitter (nerantzi) from the sweet (portokali “Portuguese”) orange. Portuguese, Spanish, Arab, and Dutch sailors planted citrus trees along trade routes to prevent scurvy. On his second voyage in 1493, Christopher Columbus brought the seeds of oranges, lemons and citrons to Haiti and the Caribbean. Introduced in Florida (along with lemons) in 1513 by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. Introduced to Hawaii 1792.

How do you like them apple-oranges?


I like grapefruit. No sugar, too. I buy it. Always pumped for a healthy, colorful, and tart start to the day. But I never get around to it. The apples and bananas are the first to go. Then oranges. Then the pitted fruits and berries. My fruit bowl is left not-so-empty with a grapefruit or two.

As Socrates surely implied, the unreflected grapefruit is not worth eating. So, what is up with the grape in grapefruit, anyways? And what, if anything, do grapes and grapefruit have in common?

Their etymology, that’s what. Grapefruit, called so in 1814 and cousin to the shaddock or pomelo, grows, apparently, like grapes, in bunches and clusters. The Old French grape, referring both the bunch and the individual grape berries, was most likely formed on graper, which meant gather, seize, or catch with a hook. This verb, in turn, probably comes from the Germanic root *krappon, meaning hook. Cramp and crampon are related, as is grapple, which perfectly describes my relationship to the fruit. The tool came to name the action, and the action came to name the result.

Who says you can’t compare apples and oranges—and grapefruits and grapes?

 m ∫ r ∫

citrus, part I

Fast Mash

  • Citrus referred to the “citron tree” in Latin; possibly related to the Greek word for the cedar tree, kedros, and whose scent apparently can evoke citron
  • Lemon (via French) and lime (via Spanish) come from Arabic laimun/limah, which may in turn trace back to Persian limun/lim (citrus)  

I hate to get too personal on this blog, but one of my missions in the Mashed Radish is to connect etymologies to everyday life.

So, my fiancée and I are moving to Southern California for the next couple of years for her work. Tough luck, right? We’re aiming to be-neighbor (coinage props?) some family in Laguna Beach, where the rents are as high as the citrus is abundant. Here’s to unbalanced diets…and budgets.

Naturally, all of this got me thinking: Where do the words for fruit come from anyhow? Let’s start with citrus.


Today, citrus commonly refers to a class of fruits—you’re probably thinking of lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits. I like clementines, tangerines, and tangelos, too, but someone has to draw the line. And you know how long these posts get already. More technically, citrus refers to a particular genus (capital “c” Citrus) of flowering plants that bear the fruit.

In Latin, citrus named the citron tree, found in Africa (the northern parts, I presume) that had fragrant wood and bore citron, a sour fruit that resembles a bumpier, more oblong lemon. Except for the, um, absolutely terrifying creature that is known as Buddha’s Hand citron featured below. Aptly named…if Buddha is a space monster trying to suck your face off.

I'm scared, too.

Anyways, the OED puts citrus as ultimately Asiatic in origin. As biologists do for the fruit, first springing up in Northeast India, Burma, and Southeast China.

Some etymologists (including Weekley and Klein) argue that citrus is actually cognate to Greek’s cedar (kedrosκέδρος). Adding to this theory is the aromatic resemblance between the two trees. As the Online Etymology Dictionary notes, the citron was the first citrus available in the West. (Ponder being the first to handle such a fruit!) And historically, the fruit was used as medicine, explaining the citron’s scientific name, Citrus medica.

Check out some of these passages from antiquity on citron. Theophrastus says its improves the breath? Pliny the Elder describes its uses as ancient bug spray? (Citronella is indeed derived from citrus, lexically speaking, but is squeezed out of lemongrass.) And a believer who cites the Koran is like a citron? Good work, Wikipedia.

Lemon & Lime

Speaking of Islam, cue the confetti: Mashed Radish has its first Arabic words. (Not that Islam is solely an institution of Arabic, but I needed a good transition.)

Lemon entered English around 1400 from Old French limon (citrus fruit). Via Provençal or Italian and with many a Romance cognate, the word ultimately comes from the Arabic laimun or limah*, with lim functioning as a collective word for citrus fruits in general. Lime shows a similar lineage, but entering in the 1630s through the Spanish lima. The OED ends lemon and lime here, but others, such as Skeat, trace the Arabic back to the Persian limun or limuna. 

Arabic is not an Indo-European language, but Persian is. It’s an Iranian language in the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family. Crazy that Persian is in the same family as English, Latin, and German, right? (Sc. English father, Persian padar; English name, Persian nam; English you, Persian to/tu; English mouse, Persian mush. Yep, cognates.). But, while in the Afro-Asiatic family, Arabic was nevertheless influenced by Persian. You know, history and stuff.

But, before looking up lemon and lime, I wouldn’t have thought of the ancient Middle East. And I wouldn’t just think of 7UP. Or, cocktails, more accurately. I think of a lemon, as in a crappy car. Lemon has referred to “something undesirable,” as Partridge puts it, since around 1920, although the Online Etymology Dictionary dates a meaning of “worthless thing” further back to 1909, noting:

American English slang…perhaps via criminal slang sense of “a person who is a loser, a simpleton,” which is perhaps from the notion of someone a sharper can “suck the juice out of.”

Or it could just be metaphorical, lemon’s being sour and all.

Limey, an insulting term for an Englishman, goes back, too. Apparently, in 1888, South Africans, New Zealanders, and Australians used the term as an epithet for English immigrants. In the US, the term goes back to 1918, first describing a British sailor or ship and later generalized to a whole nationality, often functioning adjectivally, if you know where I’m going. The term is shortened from lime-juicer, as lime juice was proscribed by the British Navy to prevent scurvy all the way back in 1795.

In Part II, things get a little bit plumper with orange and grapefruit. Orange you glad I didn’t squeeze them all into one?

m ∫ r ∫ 

*Due to variations in the transcription of the Arabic, I have “averaged out” the spelling of the Arabic and Persian roots of lemon and lime.