A Web of Word Connections: “Apple”

R. Philip Bouchard
Aug 2, 2016 · 7 min read

Starting with a single word — “apple” — we can weave a tangled web of surprising linguistic connections, across time and space, through multiple languages and continents. So let’s take a bite of that apple, beginning our circuitous journey.

The word “apple” once had a broader meaning than it does today. In Old English and in Middle English, the word referred to any kind of fruit, other than berries. The eventual narrowing of the definition has had some interesting consequences. For example, in Genesis, Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. In the original texts of Genesis, the type of tree is never specified. Therefore, in the first translation of Genesis to English, it made sense to call this unidentified fruit an “apple” — meaning any kind of large fruit. But now, because the meaning of the word has narrowed, and because the word “apple” still appears in some translations of Genesis, most people assume that the forbidden fruit was indeed an apple.

A similar narrowing has occurred to the word “corn”, although only in American English. The word once referred to any kind of grain. For example, a grain of barley can be called a barleycorn. The word “corn” was applied to all kinds of small things, such as a peppercorn. But in the U.S., the word “corn” now refers to a single species of grain crop, known to the rest of the world as “maize”.

Because the term “apple” could be ambiguous, if someone wanted to specify a particular kind of fruit, then it was often necessary to use a longer phrase. For example, in Middle English, the fruit now known as “banana” was called “apple of paradise”. Even today there is a fruit that we call a “pineapple”, even though it bears no resemblance to an apple. However, the fruit does superficially resemble a large pinecone — and in fact, the term “pineapple” originally meant a pinecone.

In other European languages, the word for “pineapple” does not include any reference to apples. The Spanish word for pineapple is piña, which (like the English word) is a reference to a pinecone. Most European languages other than English and Spanish use the word ananas to mean pineapple. The word ananas is from the indigenous South American language Tupi, spoken in parts of Brazil, where pineapples were eaten long before Europeans “discovered” the new world. In addition to pineapples, the Europeans learned about several other unfamiliar foods as they explored South America. For example, the word “cashew” also comes from the Tupi language.

The English word “apple” comes from a Germanic language that was ancestral to Anglo-Saxon (Old English). In that language the word was æppel. This is nearly identical to the modern Dutch word appel, which makes perfect sense, because Dutch is descended from the same ancestral language. In German, another sister language, a shift occurred in the pronunciation of the word as the language evolved. As a result, the modern German word for apple is Apfel.

The French word for apple is pomme. Like “apple”, this word also once referred to any kind of fruit, but now refers only to apples. In fact, at one time the word could refer to any fruit-like object, not just actual fruits. Because of this history, the French word for “potato” is pomme de terre, which originally meant “fruit of the earth” — but now could be literally translated as “earth apple” or “ground apple”. Due to this same history, the French term for “French fries” is pommes frites — which of course are made from potatoes, despite the literal translation of “fried apples”.

The French word pomme was derived from the Latin word pomum, meaning apple or fruit. The corresponding word in Italian in pomo, although this is not the modern Italian word for apple. But pomo makes an appearance in pomodoro, the Italian word for tomato — which literally means “golden fruit” or “golden apple”. Apparently the first tomatoes introduced into Italy must have been yellow or yellow-orange instead of tomato red. Like the pineapple and the potato, both mentioned earlier, the tomato was completely unknown in Europe until the discovery of the New World — which was soon followed by the discovery that Native Americans were harvesting and eating all kinds of interesting foods. Imagine Italian food without tomatoes! But until the 17th century, the Italians had no knowledge of tomatoes.

Italians still use the phrase pomo d’Adamo, which literally means “Adam’s fruit” or “Adam’s apple”, to refer to that protrusion on the neck that we also called Adam’s apple. Another meaning of the Italian word pomo is “knob” — and if you imagine a door knob, it is vaguely fruit shaped. This is related to the word “pommel” in English, descended from the identical word in Old French, which means a rounded knob. Today the word is used to refer to the rounded knob that protrudes from the front of a horse’s saddle.

The Latin word pomum found its way into quite a few European languages — not just French and Italian — and attached itself to several kinds of fruit. For example, the Polish word for the fruit we call “orange” is pomarańcza, which literally means “orange fruit”. Likewise, the old German word appel also found its way into several European languages. For example, the Norwegian word for the fruit we call “orange” is appelsin, which literally means “Chinese fruit” — accurately reflecting the fact that oranges were first cultivated in China, dating back more than 4000 years.

English has other words that trace back to the Latin word pomum. For example, “pomology” is a branch of horticulture that deals with fruits and fruit growing. The word “pomade”, a perfumed ointment for the hair and scalp, is so named because the original recipe contained apple pulp. A particularly interesting example is the word “pomegranate”, which comes from the Old French pome grenate. The first part (pome) obviously means apple or fruit. The second word is from the Latin word granatum — connected to our modern word “grain” — which means “seedy” or “having many seeds”. Therefore the literal meaning of pomegranate is “seedy fruit” — and if you have ever eaten a fresh pomegranate, then you know just how accurate this description is!

Languages evolve, and the French no longer refer to a pomegranate as pome grenate. By the 1500s the French term had been shortened to grenade. This looks just like the English word “grenade”, and in fact, the French word for “grenade” is also grenade. It may seem strange that the French use the same word for a fruit and an explosive weapon — but this is not a coincidence. When grenades were first invented (way back in the 16th century), they received their name because people thought that they looked a bit like pomegranates. And therefore our English word “grenade” comes from the French word for pomegranate. The next time you find yourself traveling in France, if someone there offers you a grenade, then it is probably safe to assume that they are offering you a fruit, not a weapon. However, depending upon the context, you might want to seek clarification.

The Spanish word for pomegranate is granada, which is essentially the word “pomegranate” without the “pome”. In other words, the literal meaning of the word is “seedy”. There is also a city in Spain named Grenada, presumably named because it is a good place to grow pomegranates, and not because the city appears a bit seedy. The Spanish word granada also means “grenade”, so again we have the ambiguity between the fruit and weapon. However, in most circumstances you can safely make a reference to pomegranates without being branded a terrorist.

Oddly, the modern French, Spanish, and Italian words for apple are all different, originating from different sources — even though all three languages are descended from Latin. The Spanish word manzana has an especially odd origin — apparently derived (quite loosely) from the name of a Roman horticulturist who grew apples. The most obvious connection to English is “manzanita”, a native shrub commonly found in California. This word literally means “little apple”, and refers to the small fruits which hang from the shrub. The modern Italian word for apple is mela, and with this word we find another rich source of connections.

The Italian word mela comes from the Latin word melus, which could mean either apple or fruit. The Latin word, in turn, came from the Greek word melon, which also meant either apple or fruit. But this seems strange, because earlier we said that the Latin word for apple or fruit was pomum. Why would Latin have two words meaning exactly the same thing? The answer is that the two words were in use at different times during Roman history. Until around A.D. 400, the Latin word for apple or fruit was melus, and after that the word was replaced by pomum.

Once again, we have connections back to English. The acid which occurs naturally in apples, giving apples their tart flavor, is malic acid — a name which literally means “apple acid” or “acid from apples”. This is one of three common acids found in fruit — the other two being citric acid (named for citrus fruits) and tartaric acid (from grapes). Other fruits that contain malic acid include watermelon, bananas, apricots, blackberries, cherries, lychees, peaches, pears, and nectarines.

Now let’s consider that Greek word melon, which as we saw can mean either apple or fruit. Could this word possibly be connected to the English word “melon”? The answer is yes, but this connection is not as straightforward as it appears. In Ancient Greek, the word pepon meant “gourd”. By combining the word for fruit with the word for gourd, the Greeks created the word melopepon — literally meaning “gourd fruit” — to refer to the various fruits that we now call melons. This includes watermelons, muskmelons (cantaloupes), and other similar fruits. The word was carried into Latin, but eventually got shortened to melon. This shortened word then came into English. As a result, the English word “melon” is very similar to the Italian word mela, which means “apple” — a completely different type of fruit than a melon. But because the word mela once referred to any kind of fruit, you can also find compound words in Italian such as melagrana, which literally means “seedy fruit”, and whose translation to English is (of course) “pomegranate”!

(This article is excerpted from an upcoming book by R. Philip Bouchard.)

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The Philipendium

Insightful stories about science, nature, language, and education. Browse a collection of more than 50 fascinating articles.

R. Philip Bouchard

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Writer, educator, and avid student of nature. See more at www.philipbouchard.com

The Philipendium

Insightful stories about science, nature, language, and education. Browse a collection of more than 50 fascinating articles.

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