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.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10