Summertime means vacations, swimming pools, barbecues, and bushels of seasonal fruits. But just as juicy as summer’s many berries, stone fruits, and melons are the far-flung, surprising, and often obscure origins of their names.
When the word first appeared in the 16th century, apricot looked like something only the Big Friendly Giant would eat: abrecock. English borrowed abrecock from the Portuguese or Spanish variant of the Arabic name for the fruit: al-barquq, “the apricot.”
But apricot’s journey goes back farther than that. Arabic adapted al-barquq from the Greek praikokion, which itself took the word from Latin’s praecox. Literally meaning “cooked before,” the ancient Romans thought the praecox was a variety of peach that ripened early. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), an earlier Latin name for the fruit was prunum or malum Armeniacum, the “Armenian apple,” from where it was historically cultivated.
French formed the fruit’s name into abricot, which influenced the modern English spelling of apricot. The Latin word apricus, meaning “sunny,” likely influenced the spelling too; the fruit was believed to ripen in such an environment.
Some think the word peach is first attested in the English language all the way back in 1184 as the surname Pecche. This name is more likely from the French for “sin.” Despite fruit having a long religious association with sin, peach probably first appears in 1400, when pechis, and later peche, was used to mean the “peach tree.”
Via French, the English peche was grafted from the Latin persica, short for Persicum malum, or the “Persian apple.”
Peachy was U.S. slang for “great”—and of women, “attractive”—by 1900. This usage probably stems from the fruit’s alluring shape or color, at least in the eyes of some beholders.
A nectarine is a peach that lost its fuzz. Documented in various forms in the early 17th century, the name nectarine derives from a literary adjective, nectarine, “sweet as nectar.” Via Latin, nectar derives from the Greek nektar, the drink of the Olympian gods. Some think nectar is a Greek compound of nek- (“death”) and tar- (“overcoming”), alluding to the drink’s mythical power to bestow immortality. So, you better stock up on nectarines this summer.
A prune is a dried plum, but the word plum might just be dried prune. It’s a very old word in the language, found as plum in Old English. Scholars can trace it back to Middle Dutch and Middle Low German prume as well as the Old High German pfruma.
The ultimate origins of these Germanic plums are disputed. Some think early Germanic speakers borrowed the Latin prunum, a “plum,” possibly of a Near East origin. Prunum also gives English prune.
Whatever their roots, plum and prune originally referred to the same thing: the plum. They diverged in the 1400s, thanks to the phrase dried prunes. They diverged again, thanks to metaphor. Prune became slang for a “disagreeable person,” later an “old person.” Plum, meanwhile, became slang for something “desirable,” hence a plum job. Earlier, plum was a British colloquialism for 100,000 pounds, a nod to sweet sugar plums.
What do cherries and peas have in common? Yes, they’re both small and round, but they are also both mistakes. Middle English mistook cherise, which came from France, as a plural word. It’s not, but speakers made cheri, later cherry, the word’s singular form anyway. English also did this to pea: The original, singular word was pease.
The French cherise replaced the Old English ciris. Unlike peach, cherry does appear in an old surname: Chyrimuth, “cherry mouth.” (Cherries have long been associated with lips.) Both cherise and ciris are ultimately picked from the Latin cerasum, “cherry tree,” and the Greek kerasos before it. Kerasos might refer to a town in an ancient region of the Black Sea area of Turkey called Pontus; Romans believed one of their statesman, Lucullus, brought cherries back from there—but it’s possible that the town itself was named after cherries.
Technically, the strawberry isn’t a berry. So, does the fruit’s straw- actually have anything to do with straw? Etymologists simply don’t know. It’s an unusual word, as the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology explains: “No corresponding compound is found in other Germanic languages and the reason for the name is uncertain.” Some suggest its "seeds" (called achenes, they’re the actual fruit of the strawberry) look like scattered straw, others that its slender stems (“runners”) resemble straw stalks.
Like the strawberry, the raspberry isn’t a true berry in the biological sense of the word. And also like the word strawberry, we don’t know what its rasp- is about.
The word raspberry is found relatively late in English, attested in the early 1600s. An earlier form, raspis-berry, might give clues to its origins. In Middle English, raspise was a sweet, pink wine, possibly from the Anglo-Latin vinum raspeys. But this raspeys remains unexplained. Suggestions include the French rasper, “to scrape,” referring to the fruit’s rough appearance, and an Old Walloon word for “thicket.”
The other sense of raspberry, the noise we make, say, when we blow on someone’s stomach, is short for raspberry tart, rhyming slang for “fart.”
8., 9., 10., 11., 12., AND 13. GOOSEBERRIES, ELDERBERRIES, MULBERRIES, LOGANBERRIES, BOYSENBERRIES, AND BLACKBERRIES
Gooseberries might have nothing to do with geese and elderberries have no relation to older people: If the goose- is to do with the animal, no one has yet found a reason for this to be the case; while the elder- definitely has to do with the elder plant, but the name origin of that is tangled in the etymological bush. Mulberries are actually mulling over morons, well, the Greek moron, its name for the mulberry. This moron also appears in the second element of sycamore.
But other berry-like fruits do have clear origins: loganberries and boysenberries are named for the scientists who developed them. And blackberries? Finally, summer fruit lobs us an easy one: It’s because they are black.
Like blackberry, watermelon is another summer fruit whose name is straightforward, thanks to its light juice. But melon seems anything but a melon: Etymologically, it’s basically “apple pumpkin.”
Passing into English from French and Latin, melon ultimately comes from the Greek melopepon, joining melon (“apple”) and pepon (“gourd”). Pepon is a form of the Greek verb “to cook”; as we saw with apricot, the notion is that melon was cooked, or ripened, by the sun. Pepon is also the source of the first part of pumpkin. The -kin is a diminutive suffix also seen in napkin, which we definitely need when we eat melons.
Due to its sweet, ivory-green juice, this melon is likened to honeydew: a sugary, sticky liquid secreted by insects, often on plants. According to the folk etymology, people once believed this honey-like substance materialized from the air like dew. Honeydew melon is late to the English record; the OED first cites it in 1916.
This melon also owes its origins to the Middle East. Legend says it was brought from Armenia to Cantalupo, a former papal estate outside of Rome where the fruit was grown. Legend has it that wolves once gathered and howled around this area, hence Cantalupo, the “singing wolf,” joining Latin words for “sing” (cantare) and “wolf” (lupus). But while most etymologists agree that it’s probably named after a place called Cantalupo, it’s very possible that the papal connection is a myth. No matter what, the English language didn’t start howling over its orange flesh until the mid 1700s.
17. AND 18. LEMON AND LIME
Finally, these seasonal citrus fruits go well together in poolside drinks, but their names originate in places we don’t always associate with water. They both were squeezed into English from French, then Spanish, then Arabic, and finally from the Persian limun, a collective word for “citrus.” Lemon, appearing around 1400, predates lime in the English record by over 200 years.
A lemon is also a substandard car, usually passed off as in good condition. Describing something “bad” or “flawed” as a lemon dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. This usage might originate in American criminal slang of the early 1900s: The smarter con man could suck the juice out right out of a lemon, a “sucker” or “loser.” More likely, the slang is because the lemon leaves a sour taste—unlike so many of the delicious fruits in this article and their scrumptious etymologies.