Thursday, July 15, 2021

Language Of Confusion: Vegetables, Part I

It’s getting to be vegetable season, so why not look at the etymology of some? Plus this will be at least another three weeks of posts, so I don’t have to come up with any ideas! I love that.

Vegetable itself showed up in the fifteenth century, as an adjective before it was a verb, Obviously, they had to have a word for vegetable before that, since it’s a pretty common thing; back in Old English, a vegetable was called a wyrt, the origin for wort. Vegetable also originally meant any non-animal life—so basically, vegetation—but then it changed to specifically mean a plant grown for food. It comes from the Medieval/Late Latin vegetabilis, from the classical Latin vegetare, vegetate. That’s from the Proto Indo European root weg-, to be strong or lively, the origin for words like vigor for example.

Next, let’s look at some actual vegetables. Lettuce showed up in the late thirteenth century as letuse, but its origins from there are a bit murky, though it’s pretty certain that it’s related to the Old French laitues and classical Latin lactuca, which means lettuce. Then you start looking at that lactuca and things get freaky. See, it’s from lac, which means… milk. Yeah. It’s from the Proto Indo European galag-, milk. Apparently, the juice of lettuce is kind of milky, so they named the plant after milk.
Potato is surprisingly recent. It showed up in the mid sixteenth century from the Spanish patata, and that’s from the Haitian word batata, sweet potato, because as it turns out, potatoes weren’t even introduced to Europe before colonization. Of all the words, I did not expect potato to be so recent—and from the Caribbean!

Let’s see what surprises pepper has in store. It’s date of origin is unknown, though the vegetable didn’t start being referred to as such until the sixteenth century. Before that, it only referred to the spice, which comes from the Middle English peper and Old English pipor, which just means pepper. That’s from the classical Latin piper, again, just pepper, and they took that from the Greek piperi. Piperi is very likely from the Middle Indic pippari and Sanskrit pippali, because pepper was a very important trade item a thousand years ago.

How about one more? Spinach showed up in the fifteenth century, though it actually did appear as early as the thirteenth century as a last name. It comes from the Anglo French spinache and Old French espinache, from the Old Provençal espinarc, but before that is uncertain. One theory is it comes from the Arabic isbanakh, their word for spinach, but spinach is such a weirdly prolific word and people aren’t sure whether the Arabic is the origin or if they took it from another language that has since vanished.
Man, even for etymology, these are some weird ones.
Online Etymology Dictionary
Google Translate
University of Texas at Austin Linguistic Research Center
University of Texas at San Antonio’s page on Proto Indo European language
University of Texas at Arlington
Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English
Old English-English Dictionary
Dictionary of Medieval Latin
Encyclopaedia Britannica
Fordham University
Orbis Latinus


  1. So potatoes came from the Caribbean? Always thought it was a European vegetable.

  2. Espinarc? So, is that last name something like Esping, Espinoza, etc? Because those are last names I'm familiar with.

  3. Interesting. I've never really thought about where the words for vegetables came from.

  4. I can see a somewhat common thread of 'trade' in all these. Understandable.


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