The next installment in the Asian Verbal Impact” series written for the magazine Asian Global Impact.

Lemons are a good proxy for the Mediterranean. Genesis drummer Chris Stewart’s account of settling in Andalusia is called Driving over Lemons, and Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons is a memoir of three years in Cyprus. There is a famous Greek neighbourhood restaurant-cum-celeb hangout in North London called “Lemonia”, while “Lemon Grove” and “Lemon Tree” are popular names for eateries calculated to appeal to sun-starved Brits craving a touch of the warm south.

All this notwithstanding, the genesis of the lemon and its name actually lies further east. No conclusive geographical source for the tree has been found, but it is generally thought to have come from somewhere in the region of northeast India or China. Suggestively, the Hindi and Chinese words for lemon bear a passing resemblance – nimbu in Hindi (as in nimbu paani, “lemon water”, a refreshing concoction of freshly squeezed lemon juice, water, sugar, salt and perhaps a dash of cumin) and ning-meng in Chinese – although the relationship is far from clear.

We are on firmer ground with the connection between nimbu and the Persian limu which may seem far-fetched until we consider the words for lemon in other Indian languages such as limbu in Gujarati and lebu in Bengali. In any case, the relationship between “l” and “n” is a curious one as can be seen in two Persian words for blue – nilak and lilak. The former clearly derives from the Sanskrit nila (blue) while the latter may well be the ancestor of the English word lilac.

Back in the Mediterranean, it is possible that the Ancient Romans were familiar with lemons although it is unclear whether their malum medicum (“Median Apple”) referred to the lemon or a related fruit called the citron. Widespread use in Europe does not seem to predate the mid-15th Century when lemons where introduced in Genoa, the cosmopolitan port in North Italy from which Christopher Columbus hailed. Prior to this lemons had been the preserve of the Arab and Persian worlds, and it is therefore no surprise that the Italian word limone is similar to the Arabic limun or laymun which presumably accompanied the fruit into Iraq and Egypt from Persia. However, the French limon (a generic term for a citrus fruit) dates back to the 12th Century, and there are already references to the lymon in 14th century English suggesting a gradual introduction throughout the Middle Ages.

Meanwhile, the citron deserves a mention. Resembling a large, slightly gnarled lemon with a fragrant peel, legend has it that Alexander the Great brought the fruit to Europe from Persia or nearby Media (hence “Median Apple”). Perhaps not something you’re likely to pick up at the local supermarket, the citron is still used in candied form called succade in some European cakes and also plays a key role in the Jewish festival Sukkot. The English name citron is, of course, related to the Latin citrus, which, while now used generically, originally referred specifically to the citron. Etymologists are divided over the origins of this word, some tracing it to the Greek kedros (cedar tree), others back to Asia, but equally interesting is what has happened to it. In much of Northern Europe the word has been reallocated to refer specifically to the lemon – think of the French citron and the German zitrone – while in Greek it forms the word for yellow, kitrino. The French word for citron, on the other hand, is cédrat¸ which is suspiciously similar to cèdre (cedar) while in Italian, the words for citron and cedar are identical: cedro.

Of course, lemon is used in another context – that of a worthless or substandard item (particularly a car) or a more general misfortune (as in “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”) – but I’m going to leave that, and the question of whether this a purely English usage or if something similar occurs in other languages, to you to investigate.



The next installment in the Asian Verbal Impact” series written for the magazine Asian Global Impact.

There is nothing coy about rice and its link to Asia. Granted, it is a British kitchen staple and an illustrious player in the cuisines of Southern Europe and much of Africa but, unlike sugar, for example, it has not detached itself entirely from its geographical roots. I guarantee that when you think of Asian cuisine, whether from Kandahar or Kyoto, rice will be somewhere in your thoughts.

That said, rice has been on the British menu since the Middle Ages where it jostled with a host of exotic ingredients beloved of the wealthiest Normans – saffron, ginger, cardamom and cloves, amongst others. It found its way into the English dictionary in the mid-thirteenth century through a fairly typical route – its parent the Old French ris, grandparent the Italian riso and so on back to the Greek oryza, with any number of European cousins, such as the Dutch rijst and the Macedonian oriz, along the way.

From here things get murky. Rice, while not unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans, was hardly commonplace and there is much debate about the history of rice cultivation in Europe. The Moors certainly introduced it in a big way to Spain, where it is cooked with saffron (another Moorish legacy) and seafood to make the country’s most famous dish, paella. Fittingly, Iberian words for rice (arroz, in Spanish and Portuguese, arròs in Catalan) are taken from the Arabic al-ruz which also occurs in the form oruz, clearly related to the Greek.

Where the Greeks and Arabs acquired their words is not clear cut. It is generally held that Classical Europe’s first brush with rice came from Alexander the Great’s expedition to India. Fittingly, one theory proposes a direct borrowing from arisi, the word for uncooked rice in Tamil, a Dravidian (South Indian) language. Temptingly plausible as this theory sounds, etymologists don’t tend to favour it, maintaining that Persia and Egypt were key stepping stones in rice’s westwards journey. Indeed, some argue that the Greeks took their word from an Old Persian form like vriz or vrinj which lives on in the Pashto (Afghani) wrizhe and the Farsi berenj. These words are thought, in turn, to have come from the Sanskrit word for rice, vrihi, which itself may be a distant cousin of arisi and have its origins in a Dravidian language.

Indian origins (Sanskrit or possibly Dravidian) are also proposed for the family of rice dishes called pulao in Hindi, pilaw in Persian, pilav in Turkish and pilafi in Greek. Nobody, alas, has managed to stretch this to lineage to paella, which probably derives, via Old French, from a Latin word (patella) meaning pan. Japanese, meanwhile, has a host of words for rice, one of which, raisu, seems to be a recent borrowing from English!

So much for the words. Rice itself doesn’t come from India, but China, which remains the world’s largest rice producer although India is a reasonably close second. A glance further down the list of the world’s top rice producers – including Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Bangladesh and the Philippines – reinforces my original point. Pepper and sugar have been gone completely global, the orange is a rootless cosmopolitan, but despite the best efforts of Valencia and North Italy, Asia can still claim rice – the word and the grain – as its own.



This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact in the column “Asian Verbal Impact”

Every morning at around 11 I pay silent homage to a ninth century Ethiopian goatherd. On observing the liveliness of his goats after chewing the berries of certain plant, he decided to investigate whether the berries would have a similar effect on him. Kaldi, the pastoralist in question, is probably apocryphal but he serves a useful purpose: the berries were none other than those of the Coffea arabica plant which grows wild in Ethiopia and is thought to have first been cultivated in or around the city of Harar.

The early history of coffee is as murky as a strong espresso, and many alternatives exist to the legend of Kaldi. Reliable references only begin to appear in the 15th century, by which time the Yemeni port of Mocha (now more familiar for having lent its name to a chocolatey latte) served as a focal point in the coffee trade which stretched to Mecca (where it was briefly banned by clerics on account of the political unrest it was thought to fuel), Cairo, Damascus and beyond. The Arabs called the coffee bean al-bunn, which is probably derived from the Amharic (Ethiopian) name for it, buna. As a drink, however, coffee is called qahwah in Arabic, and one theory holds that this word originally referred to wine, another that it denotes the Kaffa region in Ethiopia.

16th Century European references to coffee feature attempts to transliterate the Arabic, such as chaoua and chaube, but the real gateway to coffee in Europe was Constantinople (now Istanbul). The city boasted a vibrant coffee culture which had spread from the Ottoman court, now with a Chief Coffee Maker among its ranks, to the public at large. Legend has it that the world’s first coffee house, Kiva Han, was established in Constantinople, although the date varies wildly between 1475 and 1554 depending on the source. The drink caught on with Venetian merchants who brought it back to Venice where it was sold by lemonade vendors and later in dedicated coffee houses. The Turkish name kahveh became the familiar caffè and, despite earlier initiatives to ban the “Muslim” drink, it now benefitted from a firm papal endorsement.

Perhaps surprisingly one of the earliest coffee houses in Europe was established in Oxford in the 1650’s, decades before more stereotypically caffeinated cities like Paris or Vienna. In the following decades coffee houses sprung up across London where they were called “Penny Universities” on account of their typical entry fee and of the writers, artists and diverse intellectuals that frequented them. They also served as places of commerce, most notably Edward Lloyd’s Coffee House (Est. 1688) which later gave birth to the insurance company Lloyd’s of London. When the word “coffee” was first used in its current form, and whether it comes directly from the Venetian or from the related Dutch word koffie, is a matter of debate.

The Dutch, in any case, were as concerned with the trading of coffee as with its consumption, and were responsible for establishing plantations in its Indonesian colonies (a legacy that you can still taste in a cup of Java or Sulawesi). They later introduced coffee to Scandinavia, the region with the highest per capita consumption worldwide today. A more dramatic introduction was effected in Vienna, where (supposedly) the Ottomans retreating after the Second Siege of 1683 left behind sacks of coffee sparking a craze for the beverage that, famously, still persists in the city. Some decades later, in the 1720’s coffee was introduced to Brazil – supposedly stolen from a plant in French Guiana – and a century or so (and much human traffic) later Brazil had become the world’s biggest coffee producer, a title it still holds. Also high in the ranks are Vietnam, where the French name has been adapted to cà phê, Colombia, thought by some as the source of the world’s best coffee, and, rich with historical resonances, Ethiopia.


This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact in the column “Asian Verbal Impact” 

“Pepper it was that brought Vasco da Gama’s tall ships across the ocean, from Lisbon’s Tower of Belem to the Malabar Coast.” So wrote Salman Rushdie in his 1995 novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, with such insouciance that you could be forgiven for missing the point. Indeed, pepper has an almost bland ubiquity today that belies its superstar status in the history of commodities trading. Long before da Gama and his tall ships, the Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder lamented the annual drain on the empire’s economy due to pricey imported pepper from India, while Alaric the Goth who sacked Rome in the 5th century demanded 3,000 pounds of pepper as part of his ransom.

When dominance of the spice trade passed from Rome into Arab and Venetian hands, others took to the sea in a bid to break this monopoly. Genoan-born Christopher Columbus, acting for Spain, struck out West in the hope of reaching India and instead found America and a place in history. Da Gama, from Portugal, sailed in the opposite direction, rounding the Cape of Good Hope to reach Calicut in 1497, opening up India to European trade and ultimately colonisation.

For the spice that launched so many ships, pepper’s name comes to us via an apparently careless misunderstanding. Two similar species grow native to India: Black pepper (Piper nigrum) in the south and long pepper (Piper longum) further north. Long pepper is now largely restricted to certain Asian and North African cuisines and to the more adventurous patrons of London’s specialist food markets. In ancient times, however, it was traded alongside black pepper and the name given to it in Dravidian (South Indian) languages, pippali, was mistakenly used by the Romans, corrupted to piper, to refer to both types of pepper.

It doesn’t take a degree in linguistics to guess that the Latin piper gave rise to the English pepper, alongside similar words across Europe – the French poivre and the German pfeffer, for example. More distant cousins include the Arabic filfil, which travelled to East Africa into Swahili as pili-pili. This name later attached itself to a variety of chilli, which in Portuguese became piri-piri – now immortalised in a popular sauce.

Botanically-speaking, chilli is unrelated to black pepper and grows native to the Americas, taking its name from the Mesoamerican language Nahuatl. The Swahili case, however, is just one of many examples of a word for black pepper being redeployed to describe chilli and its relatives. “Pepper” itself is an obvious example when prefaced with chilli, bell or jalapeño and equivalents can be found in many other languages.  It is ironic that chilli, spread worldwide by Portuguese traders, not only supplanted long pepper as the world’s culinary firecracker of choice but also appropriated its name. Even more ironically, the bona fide Indian word for black pepper (the Sanskrit maricha) in addition to being gazumped elsewhere by pippali, has now been pressed into service in a number of languages (e.g. as mirch in Hindi) to describe chilli! Indeed, to specify black pepper in Hindi, as opposed to red or green chilli, you need to put the qualifying word kali (black) in front of mirch.

Word origins notwithstanding, chilli is now integral to Indian cuisine and India today is one of the world’s foremost chilli producers and consumers. The country that produces the most pepper, on the other hand, is not India but Vietnam, and one can only hope that it proves as powerful an aphrodisiac there as it did for Rushdie’s hero and heroine, who consummated their love atop sacks of “Black Gold” in a Cochin warehouse and called it “pepper love”.


This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact in the column “Asian Verbal Impact” http://www.agimag.co.uk/asian-verbal-impact/

There is a grand tradition of naming of naming foodstuffs after places. Think of Cheddar cheese. Think of Danish pastries. Think, for that matter, of Parma ham. There’s no guarantee that the name corresponds to the food’s place of origin –  what we call a turkey, the Portuguese call a peru, which is only marginally closer to the fowl’s actual ancestral home in North America. It should therefore not come as a complete shock that in many languages an orange is referred to as a “Portugal” – take the Greek portokali, for example, or the Arabic burtuqal. Oranges don’t come from Portugal, as it happens, but it was predominantly Portuguese traders who brought sweet oranges (probably from China) to Europe, and the name seems to have stuck.

No amount of etymological twisting and turning will get us from “Portugal” to “Orange” so for the main event we need to look back into history. Until the 16th century, the only oranges available in Europe were bitter oranges, first introduced by the Crusaders with their Arabic name tag – naranj – intact. This word is still used in Arabic, but only to refer to bitter oranges, and a similar usage in Greek has given rise to a preserve called nerantzi glyko. On an English breakfast table, meanwhile, bitter oranges are mostly likely to be encountered in the form of marmalade, typically made from a variety named after the Spanish city where it is cultivated: Seville.

In Spanish, however, Seville oranges are called naranja amarga (bitter orange) and we can instantly recognize the Arabic origin of the first word, which is now used to refer to all oranges, bitter or sweet. The same is true in other south European languages, where havoc has been played with the initial “n” giving us the Portuguese laranja, Catalan taronja and Italian arancia. To understand what probably happened in Italian, here’s an experiment: say “una narancia” over and over again getting faster each time and what do you get? Un arancia, in my case. The same is thought to have happened in French, where une narange ultimately became une orange, the form in which (fanfare, please!) it passed into English in the 13th century.

But the story doesn’t end, or begin, with Arabic. Naranj, in fact, comes from the Persian narang, which in turn comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “orange tree”, thought ultimately to derive from a south Indian language. Indeed, in many Indian languages narangi, or similar, is still used for some varieties of orange, while santra is used for others. There is a delicious theory that santra may actually be a corruption of Sintra, a town in Portugal, but this is not widely supported and a good rule of thumb for a budding etymologist is that if it sounds that nice, it probably ain’t true. Perhaps the Dutch and Germans have a better idea with sinaasappel and apfelsine respectively, both meaning “Chinese apple”. Likewise, in Puerto Rican Spanish, sweet oranges are simply called chinas, while Algerian dialects of Arabic use tchina.

And finally… in case you were wondering, the majority of the languages referenced here give the same word (or similar) to the colour as they do to the fruit. I’ll leave you to ponder that one.

Disclaimer: while the above is based on well-established theories of etymology, it should be noted that alternative theories exist for a number of the word origins described.



This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact in the column “Asian Verbal Impact” – http://www.agimag.co.uk/asian-verbal-impact-tea/

I grew up with a vague idea that tea drinking was a habit the British picked up in India. Not an unreasonable conclusion to draw from the tableaux of sari-clad tea pickers on the front of packets labelled “Darjeeling” and “Assam”, I suppose, but totally inaccurate. The early chapters in the story of man and tea are overwhelmingly linked to China.

Whatever the truth of a popular story involving Emperor Shen Nung, a pot of boiling water, a nearby shrub and a gust of wind, Chinese references to tea drinking stretch back over 2,000 years. By the Tang dynasty (7th to 10th Century CE) tea was widely drunk across China, Japan and Korea.  The name given to the beverage (and plant) varied slightly between languages, with most of China calling it something like cha (the name used in Mandarin and Cantonese today), but those in the southeast opting for ta.

Cha was certainly the form that travelled to Iran, where it became chai which, drunk black and accompanied by dates and sugar cubes, still holds a focal position in Persian social life. As chai, the word has found its way into the vocabulary of Russia, the Arab World, North India, East Africa and most recently even Starbucks!

The first Europeans to encounter tea were the Portuguese, as written records dating back to the 1550s attest. As their major foothold in China was Cantonese-speaking Macau, the word the Portuguese adopted was chá. It is ironic that from Portugal, today a nation of coffee-addicts, one of Europe’s most enthusiastic tea-drinkers spread the habit to Britain. Although the first dated reference to tea in England comes from a 1658 London newspaper, it was Catherine of Braganza, who married Charles II a few years later, who really put tea on the English social map (other legacies from the Portuguese princess include the city of Bombay and, allegedly, the use of the fork).

Why, then, do we (almost always) call it ‘tea’ rather than ‘char’? The answer lies with another European sea-faring nation with trading interests in the Far East. Back in 1606, the first consignment of tea from China to Europe was shipped by the Dutch. They traded with the Fujian region where the word ta was used, and routed ships via Java where this had morphed into teh. As Europe’s principal supplier, the Dutch scattered their thee across Western Europe, giving the French thé, the Italians and the Germans tee.

And what about those tea pickers of Assam? My childhood theory actually played out in reverse. By the 19th century, tea had started to spread from Britain’s elite to all levels of society and demand for Chinese imports grew ever higher, prompting the East India Company to investigate the possibility of growing tea in India. Assam, home to an indigenous variety of tea, seemed a logical choice of location and by the 1850’s cultivation and import of Assam tea was in full swing although it was only well into the twentieth century that tea achieved the ubiquity in India that it maintains today. Most of India refers to it with some variant of chai or cha, while some southern languages use teneer (“tea water”) or simply ti. Round the corner in Burma they call it lahpet and eat it pickled as a salad, but that doesn’t really sound like my cup of tea…

Disclaimer: while the above is based on well-established theories of etymology, it should be noted that alternative theories exist for a number of the word origins described.


This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact http://www.agimag.co.uk/ (Issue 07: May/June 2013) in the column “Asian Verbal Impact”.

If I asked you to list the food products in your kitchen with Asian names, I doubt sugar would spring to mind. And why should it? Sugar has been a bona fide English word since the thirteenth century and long since integral to British cuisine. Wealthy Tudors were notorious across Europe for their rotten teeth, and from the seventeenth century onwards sugarcane cultivation was a central feature of European colonialism in the Americas. Today, roughly a quarter of the world’s sugar is produced in Brazil.

Probing back into the word’s origins we start in disarmingly familiar territory. It is generally agreed that sugar derives from either the French sucre or a related Venetian term. Venice, in any case, was at the heart of European sugar production in the late Middle Ages, sourcing cane from plantations in Cyprus and Crete to fuel a love affair that had taken off with the Crusaders who brought sugar back as a souvenir from the Holy Land. Naturally they adopted its Arabic name, sukkar, which as al sukkar travelled into Spanish as azúcar.

Both the name sukkar and the method of turning sugarcane juice to granulated crystals came to the Arab world from the Persians. They in turn got their shakkar (probably in the 6th Century AD) from India where cane had been grown for centuries, although the plant is thought to have originated in Papua New Guinea. The ultimate parent word was the Sanskrit sarkara which originally referred to any gritty substance before taking on sweeter connotations. Outsiders, such as Alexander the Great, were more poetic in their appreciation and references to “honey without bees” and “honey-bearing reeds” can be found in contemporary travellers’ accounts. Indeed, the Macedonian army brought sugarcane back from the banks of the Indus in the 4th Century BC, and for 1,500 years sugar, Hellenised as sakharon, remained a little-known commodity restricted to the wealthy. Via the Latin saccharum the word lives on in English as saccharine (which has been used to refer to something cloying since the 19th century) and the artificial sweetener Saccharin.

Sarkara also passed into the South Indian language Malayalam as chakkara which ultimately mutated into the Anglo-Indian jaggery, an unrefined form of cane sugar consumed widely across Asia, Africa and Latin America. In some parts of India the word was less durable, and the modern Hindi name for granulated sugar is actually chini, meaning “Chinese” (a strange misnomer, since sugar almost certainly travelled from India to China rather than vice-versa), while sugar candy is called misri (“Egyptian”) in reference to Egypt’s monopoly over production in the Middle Ages. Elsewhere, the reach of Sanskrit has been impressive, and you can enjoy sheqer in Albania, siwgr in Wales and saaxarax in the Aleutian Islands. The awkward fact that in Chinese sugar is called tang, we’ll leave for another time…

Disclaimer: while the above is based on well-established theories of etymology, it should be noted that alternative theories exist for a number of the word origins described.


This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact http://www.agimag.co.uk/ (Issue 06: Feb/Mar 2013) in the column “Asian Verbal Impact”.

Aubergine: the classic Mediterranean ingredient. Melanzana to the Italians; eggplant to the Americans; and a fixture on the oven-trays of Britain’s chattering classes who serve it, lemon-drizzled, on cous-cous dreaming of warmer climes. But it’s big on Indian menus too, isn’t it? And in Middle Eastern cooking, surely? So where exactly does it come from?

Although the earliest written records of aubergines come from fifth century China, cultivation is believed to have originated in India. In any case, our story starts with the Sanskrit vatingana, loosely translatable as “vegetable that stops you breaking wind”. Drop the “t”, change a few consonants and vowels and shift forward a thousand years or so and you get baingan, the standard Hindi word for aubergine. But that’s just a sideshow compared to what happened when the vegetable travelled west into Persia. Modern Hindi is famously peppered with words borrowed from Persian and Arabic, so it’s worth remembering that this was a two-way trade, in this case resulting in the Farsi word bademjan – as in the famous Iranian aubergine and whey appetizer kashk-e-bademjan.

It is likely that the Arabs first encountered aubergines when they conquered Persia in the seventh century. In any case, in Arabic the word became al-badinjan (the al simply meaning “the”, and found in words like algebra and alcohol) and was syndicated across the Islamic empire. In the westernmost reaches it entered Moorish Spain and lost the al to become berenjena, still used in modern Spanish – try the gratinada version at your local tapas bar. Europeans regarded the vegetable with suspicion; indeed, it has been argued that the Italian melanzana is a corruption of the Spanish, re-interpreted as mela insana or “mad apple”.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese variant, berengela, travelled back East to become the Anglo-Indian brinjal, a word familiar to curry aficionados across the UK. In eastern Spain, on the other hand, Catalan-speakers retained the Arabic article and called it albergínia, a mouthful for their Gallic neighbours who couldn’t manage the “l” in “alb-”. Hence, in the same process that turned the Latin words falsus and castellus into faux and château, the name given to the delicacy favoured by faddish Parisian diners in the late 18th century was none other than the one that ultimately crossed the channel into the English dictionary: aubergine.

Disclaimer: while the above is based on well-established theories of etymology, it should be noted that alternative theories exist for a number of the word origins described.