Mind your language

When is an aubergine not an ‘aubergine’?

28 April 2018

9:00 AM

28 April 2018

9:00 AM

In the warm weather, I had an al fresco hit with my mad-apple bruschette. Mad-apple shows the tangle to which ‘a foreign and unintelligible word is liable under the influence of popular etymology’. It is a name for the aubergine, or egg-plant as it was earlier known in England, as it still is in America. Why mad-apple? Because the Renaissance Latin name was malum insanum, from the lost Italian form mela insana. This was a rationalisation of the earlier melanzana, attested in Sicilian use by the Arab geographer Idrisi in the 12th century. There it was a straight borrowing from the Greek melintzana, earlier matizanion, adapted from the Arabic badinjan.

Arabic is of course no Indo-European language, but that didn’t stop verbal loans, for Arabic itself had borrowed the word from the Persian badingan. Here we’re back in the Indo-European family again, and Persian had derived the word from Sanskrit vatingana or vatigama, said to mean ‘that which removes the windy humour’.


If the aubergine was reputed a carminative, there is often confusion between foods that remove wind and foods that produce belching. Swift in a scatological mood warned against wind in bed. ‘Carminative and Diuretick,’ he wrote in a memorable couplet, ‘Will damp all Passion Sympathetick.’ But carminatives were supposed to comb out (Latin carminare) knots of wind, like carding wool.

Aubergine, from the French, is not a vegetable from auberges. Rather, aubergine represents the Arabic word mentioned, al-badinjan (with al– the definite article), which also produced Spanish berengena. The Portuguese made it beringela, from which Anglo-Indians derived brinjal or brinjaul. By the time the word got to the West Indies it was ripe to be adapted into brown-jolly.

The remark on the influence of popular etymology here was made by J.T. Platts, in a chatty note in 1888 to the entry in the OED for brinjal. The Victorians often gave opportunities to brilliant linguists like Platt, the son of a poor widow in Calcutta. He became a maths teacher at Benares College and in 1880 was appointed teacher of Persian at Oxford, matriculating from Balliol aged 50. I bet he never called toast bruschetta.

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