Artichoke ultimately comes from the Arabic al-harshuf, meaning “the artichoke.” The word, and plant, passed into Spanish, Italian, and then English as archicokk, in the 1530s. Speakers tried to explain its unusual name with folk etymologies: The plant’s center was said to choke anyone who tried to eat it, or the plant chokes the growth of other plants in the garden. These folk beliefs are preserved in the modern spelling.
2. and 3. Scallion and Shallot
Scallions and shallots may be two different species of onion, but they share a common root: the Vulgar Latin cepa escalonia, or “Ascalonian onion.” Ascalon is modern-day Ashkelon, an Israeli coastal city and a historically important seaport, apparently, for trading the likes of scallions and shallots. The Latin cepa, for onion, is also the source of another name for the scallion, chive.
If we peel back the etymological layers of onion, we find the Latin unio, which named both a pearl and a type of onion. Unio probably sprouts from unus, Latin for “one,” the idea being that this vegetable’s layers all comprise a single whole.
Fennel looks like an onion, but it’s actually in the carrot family. Appearances, though, are still the key to the origin of this word. Fennel, which is documented in English as early as 700, comes from a diminutive form of Latin faenum, for “hay,” which the plant’s feathery foliage and aroma evokes.
Speaking of carrots, the name of this orange vegetable is rooted in the Greek karōton.T he origin of the Greek word is unclear. It could be from an Indo-European root ker, for horn, thanks to its shape. Ker could also mean head, possibly alluding to the way the carrot grows—and making a red-headed carrot-top etymologically redundant.
7., 8., 9., and 10. Kale, Collard, Kohlrabi, and Cauliflower
These seasonal superfoods have a super-etymology. Latin had a word caulis, meaning “stem,” “stalk,” or “cabbage,” which produced quite the lexical bumper crop.
Old Norse borrowed caulis as kal, source of the word kale and the cole in coleslaw. In English, cole itself was an old word for cabbage as well as other leafy greens, like colewort, which American English speakers came to pronounce as collard, hence collard greens.
Kohlrabi literally means “cabbage-turnip” in German, cultivating its kohl from an Italian descendant of the original Latin caulis. And cauliflower, from Modern Latin cauliflora, is simply “cabbage flower.”
If Latin’s caulis means “cabbage,” what does cabbage mean? “Head,” from the Old French caboce, in turn from the Latin caput. It doesn’t take too much imagination to understand why the Romans so named this heavy and round vegetable.
This vegetable was once believed to be a kind of turnip, and so was made to look like turnip as a word. (The parsnip is actually related to the carrot while the turnip is related to the cabbage.) Parsnip stems from pastinaca, the Latin name for the vegetable, which may be related to pastinum, a two-pronged tool used to harvest tubers like parsnips.
14. and 15. Radish and Rutabaga
The roots of these roots are “roots.” Radish comes from the Latin radix, a root, both botanically and metaphorically, as we can see in derivatives like radical and eradicate. This radix, according to Indo-European scholars, grows from a more ancient soil: wrad, believed to mean root or branch. Wrad is featured in another vegetal word, rutabaga, which English took from the Swedish rotabagge by the 1780s. Rotabagge literally means “root bag,” with bag referring to a kind of bundle in Old Norse.
16. and 17. Pumpkin and Squash
If you thought turnips and parsnips were all mixed up, then have a look at pumpkin. English immediately carved pumpkin out of French and Latin roots. The word’s ending, -kin, is influenced by a Germanic suffix for “little,” also seen in words like napkin. The ultimate root is the Greek pepon, meaning “ripe” and related to its verb for “cook.”
A Greek pepon was a kind of melon enjoyed when ripe, and the word melon, squashed from the Greek melopepon, literally means “ripe apple.” So, etymologically, a pumpkin is a melon, which is an apple. Early British colonists applied the word pumpkin—which, to make things more confusing, is technically a fruit—for the type of squash they encountered in the Americas.
Squash has nothing to do with smashing pumpkins. The word is shortened from the Algonquian askutasquash, literally “green things that may be eaten raw,” according to the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology.
You say potato, I say batata. Christopher Columbus is said to have brought the word batata back from his voyages. The batata, probably from the Haitian Taíno language, was actually a kind of sweet potato. Later, Spanish conquistadors brought what we commonly think of as the potato back from South America, where it was called papa in the Quechuan language. Botanically, sweet potatoes and potatoes are completely unrelated, but that didn’t stop English speakers from confusing them by using the word potato as a common term.
Sweet potatoes aren’t a type of potato—and nor are they yams, even if we insist on calling them so. Yam crops up as inany in 1588, according to the Oxford English Dictionary; it was a borrowing of the Portuguese inhame or Spanish igname, possibly from a word in West African languages meaning “to eat.” Because of the slave trade, yam may have been directly borrowed from a West African language in American and Jamaican English.
Beet comes from the Old English bete, in turn from the Latin beta. These words just mean, for a refreshing change, “beet.” But even the humble beet has its baggage. The word was common in Old English but disappeared from the existing record until about the 1400s. It seems the English language didn’t much want to eat its vegetables in the late Middle Ages.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2023.
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