Please Pass the Earth Apples: Thanksgiving Dinner Etymology


In middle-school geography class, our teachers told us that the country of Turkey was not named after the bird. What they didn’t mention was that the bird may well be named after the country.

Soon after the Spanish introduced turkeys from the New World, British traders who brought turkeys back from an expedition to the Turkish empire took to calling them "Turkey birds." Whether the fowl the traders brought back was American turkey or guinea fowl from Africa is debatable, but the name stuck. ?

The names of other foods weighing down our Thanksgiving tables have equally intriguing back-stories:

Putting the “cran” in cranberries

When early settlers saw the shape of cranberry’s pink blooms, they were reminded of a crane’s head and neck, and called them "craneberries." No word on why that silent ‘e’ was so cumbersome it had to be dropped.

I yam what I yam

When is a yam not a yam? When it's a sweet potato. While sweet potatoes, particularly when canned, are often called yams, they are not yams at all. Yams grow in Africa and are not found in the United States. Farmers popularized the word when trying to distinguish their new orange-fleshed sweet potatoes from earlier ?yellow varieties. ??

Geo-melon and gravy

While it’s tempting to accuse the French of trying to sex up an ugly tuber by calling a potato a “pomme de terre” – literally, “earth apple” – it’s far from the only language that does so. The Dutch “aardappel,” Austrian “erdapfel,” Finnish “maaomena,” Czech “zamnak,” Polish “zemniak,” and the fabulously weird Greek “geo-melon” all translate to “earth apple.” All this despite the fact that a potato is about as much like an apple as a grapefruit is like a grape. ??

Dressed or stuffed?

Much like the yam/sweet potato conundrum, dressing and stuffing are improperly used as synonyms. Chefs say that stuffing is only stuffing when it has been cooked inside a bird. Cooked on the stove or in a casserole dish, it’s dressing, which is not only problematic for Stove Top Stuffing but just plain odd when you consider that “dressing” a bird means plucking and gutting it in preparation for stuffing. ??

Finally, a reason for pearl onions

As unlikely as it seems, onion shares a root word with union. The Latin “unio” (oneness, unity) was also used for large pearls, which makes sense, as pearls look a lot like onions – especially those pearl onions that no one will touch the other 364 days of the year. (As long as we’re on both topics, it bears mentioning that the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology was penned by Charles Talbut Onions.)

?A ‘dirt boat’ just doesn’t sound the same

You might go easier on the gravy once you know the word’s likely origins: The Old Swedish “grefwar” (literally, dirt). The word refers to the sediment of melted tallow left over from candlemaking, which has a certain unappetizing similarity to the melted fat used to make gravy. But, hey, never mind all that and pass the dirt boat – my earth apples are getting cold.

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