The etymological secrets hidden in your soup

Image by Ian Wilson from Pixabay

Not only are vegetables good for you, they can be a source of delight: the fragrance and sweetness of tomatoes on a summer day, the delicious pop that gives snap peas their name, the contented murmuring a winter stew on the stove.

The words we use for vegetables are loaded with the history of how people have eaten throughout the centuries. Here are some of the etymologies of your favorite (or least favorite) greens.


The word ‘radish’ is a special word for word-lovers, because it simply means ‘root’! The root is the same one we see in ‘radical’.


From ancient Greek καρωτόν (karoton), through Latin and French.

The Old English word for a carrot was more, which is cognate with the modern Welsh moron (no, those Welsh greengrocers aren’t insulting your intelligence!)

The Old English word is distantly related to the Russian word for carrot, морковь (morkov’).


This New World vegetable comes from the Taíno language, which was spoken in the majority of the Caribbean before the Spanish Conquest. The Taíno word was batata, which was adopted as the Spanish patata and eventually became the English potato.

The German word is Kartoffel is a corruption of the Italian tartufolo, which came for the word for truffle. This in turn came from the Latin terrae tuber, tuber of the earth.


Borrowed from Spanish, from the Nahuatl-language word tomatl. Nahuatl was the language spoken in the Aztec empire, centered on modern-day Mexico.


The Nahuatl word ahuacatl gave us the common Spanish word aguacate and the slightly altered form avocado which was borrowed into English.

In many parts of South America, this vegetable is called a palta, from a Quechua word.


This word simply meant, and is indeed cognate with the English word ‘grain’. Maize (borrowed from Taíno) was originally known as Indian corn.


In colloquial Latin, a string of onions (formally known as cepa) was known as an unio, a union (individual vegetables united on a single string). This was borrowed into Old French and English.

The more formal Latin word cepa became the root of Italian cipolla, Spanish cebolla, and German Zwiebel. It also is the root of the English word chive.

The Russian word is лук (luk) which is related to the English word leek through Proto-Germanic.

Shallot and scallion derive from the Latin ascalonia cepa — onion of Ashkelon.


Garlic is a native English word composed of two elements: gar meaning spear or clove, and leek (see above).

The Romance language terms aglio (Italian), ajo (Spanish), ail (French) derives from the Latin alium, which may be related to the word for wings, referring to the cloves.

The German Knoblauch comes from the verb klieben (to cleave) and Lauch (leek); therefore, a cloven leek.


From Old French moisseron, probably derived from the word mosse (moss).


An Italian diminutive of zucca, meaning ‘squash’ — a little squash. Ultimately from the Latin cucurbita, meaning ‘gourd’.

Outside of US usage this vegetable is typically known as a courgette, a French diminutive of courge (derived from Latin cucurbita, which also gave us gourd) meaning a marrow squash.


English speakers added the diminutive suffix -kin to the French pompon (melon) to refer to this squash. Ultimately derives from the Greek word πέπων (pepon, also melon) which in turn comes from the word for ‘to ripen’.


Unrelated to what you might do to a bug, as it is borrowed from the Narragansett language spoken by the Algonquin tribe in what is now Rhode Island. Their word was askutasquash, meaning ‘something that can be eaten raw’.


This disgusting vegetable has been given a disgusting name so that you can consider yourself fairly warned.

In the UK, it is known as an aubergine, which reached French through the Arabic اَلْبَاذِنْجَان‎ (al-badinjan). Ultimately from Sanskrit वातिगगम (vatigagama).


If you break open a lettuce stalk, you will find a milk-like liquid. This led to the Latin term lactuca, derived from the word for milk.


If you were speaking Old French, you would find the phrase ‘a head of cabbage’ reduntant, because caboche simply meant ‘head’ in the northern dialect, ultimately derived from the Latin caput.

In modern French, the word is chou, derived from the Latin caulis, meaning a stalk or the stem of a cabbage.


From Latin caulis (see above) and English flower, together essentially meaning ‘cabbage-flower’.


In Latin, broccus meant buck-toothed, perhaps from a Gaulish word for badger. In Italian, brocco meant something that projected (like a buck tooth), and broccoli was a diminutive version of this word.


From Latin asparagus, from Greek ἀσφάραγος, which also meant ‘throat’.

It was known as sparrowgrass in English until the Victorian period through folk etymology.

In Old English, the word was eorþnafola, meaning earth-navel.


The Latin word for the artichoke was carduus, which also referred to the thistle (giving us the English word card as in ‘to card wool’, often done with thistles, and chard). The modern version of the plant, however, was introduced to Spain by the Moors as ‘الْخُرْشُوف’ (al-kursuf)‎’ where it spread across Europe. The word used in the northern Italian Lombard language was articiocco, which gave rise to the English word. They were introduced to England in the early 16th century.


From Latin beta, origin unknown.

The Russian word is свёкла (svyokla) which comes from the Greek word σεῦτλον meaning chard (see above).


The Persian word اسپناخ (espanax) was borrowed into Arabic as إِسْفَانَاخ (isfanak), in turn borrowed by the French as espinoche, and finally found its way to us.


From ancient Greek σέλῑνον (selinon), simply meaning celery, borrowed through the French.

Native English words for this vegetable were march and smallage.


Ultimately from Latin cucumis (cucumber). This in turn comes from a much older root which has spread widely, but unfortunately cannot be traced to a specific source.


The Ancient Greeks knew the pea as πισον (pison), it became pisum in Latin and pise in Old English. Originally, pease was the singular form of the Modern English word, while peasen was the plural. However, the final ‘s’ sound led English speakers to believe that pease was the plural and drop the ‘s’ of the root to leave us with the new singular word ‘pea’. (A similar thing happened with the word ‘cherise’ meaning ‘cherry’).


This may be the oldest traceable word on the list — ancient Greek had πέπερι (peperi). We don’t know where they inherited the pepper from directly, but Sanskrit has the very similar word पिप्पलि (pippali) to mean a pepper.

Earth's Most Nutritious Fruit

Chance, Choice, and the Avocado: The Strange Evolutionary and Creative History of Earth’s Most Nutritious Fruit

In the last week of April in 1685, in the middle of a raging naval war, the English explorer and naturalist William Dampier arrived on a small island in the Bay of Panama carpeted with claylike yellow soil. Dampier — the first person to circumnavigate the globe thrice, inspiring others as different as Cook and Darwin — made careful note of local tree species everywhere he traveled, but none fascinated him more than what he encountered for the first time on this tiny island.

Dampier described the black bark and smooth oval leaves of the tall “Avogato Pear-tree,” then paused at its unusual fruit — “as big as a large Lemon,” green until ripe and then “a little yellowish,” with green flesh “as soft as Butter” and no distinct flavor of its own, enveloping “a stone as big as a Horse-Plumb.” He described how the fruit are eaten — two or three days after picking, with the rind peeled — and their most common local preparation: with a pinch of salt and a roasted plantain, so that “a Man that’s hungry, may make a good meal of it”; there was also uncommonly delectable sweet variation: “mixt with Sugar and Lime-juice, and beaten together in a Plate.” And then he added:

It is reported that this Fruit provokes to Lust, and therefore is said to be much esteemed by the Spaniards.

Avocado by Étienne Denisse from the stunningly illustrated 19th-century French encyclopedia Flore d’Amérique. (Available as a print, a cutting board, and stationery cards, benefitting the New York Botanical Garden.)

But far more fascinating than the cultural lore of the avocado are its own amorous propensities, uncovered in the centuries since by sciences that would have then seemed like magic, or heresy.

The most nutritious known fruit, the avocado — a mostly evergreen member of the laurel family — is a ghost of evolution that should have grown extinct when the animals that fed on it and disseminated its enormous seeds did. Mercifully, it did not. Ample in Europe and North American during the Ice Age, it somehow managed to survive in Mexico and spread from there. But even more impressively, it managed to survive its own self-defeating sexual relations — the botanical equivalent of the human wire-crossing Eric Berne described in his revelatory 1964 classic Games People Play.

Bald of petals though the tree’s small greenish blossoms may be, they are an example of “perfect flowers” — the botanical term for bisexual blooming plants, which can typically self-pollinate. The avocado, however, is far from reproductively self-sufficient due to an astonishing internal clock, which comes in two mirror-image varieties.

In some cultivars — like the Hass, Pinkerton, and Reed avocados — the blossoms open up into reproductive receptivity in their female guise each morning, then close by that afternoon; the following afternoon, they open in their male guise. Other cultivars — the Fuerte, Zutano, and Bacon avocado among them — bloom on the opposite schedule: female in the afternoon, male by morning.

Thisbe by John William Waterhouse, 1909. (Available as a print.)

This presents a Pyramus and Thisbe problem across the wall of time — while both partners inhabit the space of a single tree, they can’t reach each other across the day-parts and need to be pollinated by trees on the opposite schedule. Their reproduction is further derailed by the fact that some varieties, like the Hass, only fertilize to fruition every other year.

Ever since humans have cultivated Earth’s most nutritious fruit, they have tried to help the helpless romancer with various intervention strategies — grafting, planting trees with opposite blooming schedules near each other, even manually pollinating blossoms of the same tree.

The world’s most beloved avocado — the Hass — is the consequence of human interference consecrated by happenstance in the hands of a California mailman in the 1920s.

The Hass avocado in Northern California. (Photograph: Maria Popova.)

The year he turned thirty, Rudolph Hass (June 5, 1892–October 24, 1952) was leafing through a magazine when an illustration stopped him up short: a tree growing dollar bills instead of fruit. He was making 25 cents an hour delivering mail while raising a growing family. The tree, he learned, was an avocado and its fruit were promised to be the next great horticultural boon.

Rudolph took all the money he had, borrowed some from his sister Ida, and bought a small grove of the leading commercial avocado variety — the Fuerte — with a few other cultivars sprinkled in. Needing the greatest possible gain from his grove, he wanted only Fuertes but couldn’t afford to buy any new trees. Instead, he decided to cut down some of the old ones and graft them to become more fertile young Fuertes. He took counsel from a professional grafter, who said the best technique was to graft with his own seedlings. He had none. But it happened that a man on his mail route had a mighty green thumb and was experimenting with growing avocados from seeds, which he got from restaurant refuse.

Rudolph bought three of the lustrous dark orbs and planted them in his grove. They sprouted. When they grew strong enough, he grafted onto one of them a cutting from one of the mature Fuerte trees. The graft didn’t take. He tried again on another of the seedlings. This too failed.

Resigned, Rudolph abandoned the experiment and let his surviving seedling grow as it pleased. In a neglected corner of the grove, it quietly went on doing what trees, those masters of improvisation, do — press on with their blind optimism. When it reached maturity, it began bearing fruit that looked nothing like any other avocado — dark and luscious, the Braille of its skin glimmering with violet.

When Rudolph cut one open for his five young children, they declared those were the most delicious avocados they had ever tasted.

Soon, the world would agree.

This being America and that being the wake of the Great Depression, the Hass family had patented the avocado within a decade.

Rudolph and Elizabeth Hass in front of the mother tree

After describing his “new and improved variety of avocado which has certain characteristics that are highly desirable” and listing all the ways in which “the present invention” differed from existing avocados — higher oil content, superior flavor, doesn’t drop from the tree or rot inside before ripening, resists cold blasts, and, oh, it is almost purple — Rudolph ended his patent application with a summation of his creation that hums with a kind of humble pride:

I claim as my invention: The variety of avocado tree… characterized by its summer ripening, medium-sized fruits, of purple color having a leathery skin… and borne on long stemps [sic], with a small tight seed and with creamy flesh of excellent color and nutty flavor, smooth with no fibre and butter-like consistency.

Rudolph Hass’s avocado patent, 1935.

In the near-century since Rudolph’s hopeful and hapless experiment, the Hass avocado has begun bringing in more than a billion dollars a year for growers, accounting for four fifths of the American avocado industry. But Rudolph Hass continued working as a mailman until he was felled by a heart attack months after his sixtieth birthday, months before Rachel Carson indicted her country with the reminder that “the real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife.”

Today, every single Hass avocado in every neighborhood market that ever was and ever will be can be traced to a single mother tree grown by a destitute California mailman in 1926 — tender evidence that every tree is in some sense immortal, and a living testament to how chance and choice converge to shape our lives.