One of the things that makes us the human beings we are is a powerfully-developed pattern-matching facility. Momentarily spot a profile in half light and the person is instantly recognised; listen to someone at a crowded party and we can usually “join up the dots” between half-heard snatches of speech and turn it into a meaningful statement. But sometimes this superb ability tries hard to make sense of something that is too alien for it and nonsense results.
Take the residents of Richmond in West London about the year 1860 who spotted a plant with tiny white marigold-like flowers in their gardens. They had never seen it before, so naturally they took it up the road to the experts at Kew Gardens, who recognised it immediately as an escaped specimen of a recent introduction to the Gardens, brought back from Peru by one of their collectors. “Oh yes,” they said, not having an English name for it, “That’s Galinsoga parviflora”. That patterning ability went into immediate operation, the unfamiliar Latinate first word sounding a bit like something that made sense: Gallant Soldiers. And so it has been called in Britain ever since.
A better-known example of this process of what might be called the “dumbing down” of names is the Jerusalem artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus. You will not be surprised to hear that it does not come from Jerusalem. It is actually a sort of sunflower from North America (sunflower-artichoke is another English name for it) and the Italians, who imported it first, called it girasole: “heliotrope”, or turning always to the sun. (In a slightly different form the same word turns up in English as a name for an opal that glows reddish in the light, the “fire-opal”.) Anyway, the pattern-matchers got hold of this plant name and turned it to “Jerusalem” in a twinkling. Artichoke shows an even greater set of shifts, across three languages. The name was originally Arabic, al-kharshuf, which travelled via Moorish Spain into Italy as arcicioffo. People had all sorts of goes at turning this into English when the plant was brought here (“in the time of Henry VIII” according to Hakluyt): archecock, hortichock, artichoux, hortichoke (something that overran the garden) and even heartychoke. The name didn’t finally settle down to the modern spelling until the eighteenth century. By this time it had also been added on the end of Jerusalem for no botanical or other obvious reason, perhaps because that name didn’t sound complete by itself, or perhaps because the longer name was grander.
Then there’s pennyroyal, a name for the mint Menthe pulegium, once prized as a medicinal herb. This name is just the “turn it into something we understand” pattern-matching technique applied to the Old French name puliol real, which was originally the Latin puleium “flea-plant” — Pliny said that fleas were killed by the scent of the burning leaves.
Another strange change occurred with the avocado, but this time the pattern-matching took place in Spanish; the Nahuatl word ahuacatl for it (the word also means “testicle”) was creatively misheard as avocado (spelled abogado in modern Spanish), meaning a lawyer (the modern Spanish word for the fruit, aguacate, is closer to the original). This was curiously converted still further in English into alligator (which itself was a corruption of the Spanish el lagarto “the lizard”), or alligator-pear from its shape, a name it had in England for some decades at the beginning of the eighteenth century before the Spanish name triumphed.
But for the most extraordinary example of shifting names we must go to the aubergine, once known also as the brinjal in India. The story starts with Sanskrit vatin-gana “the plant that cures the wind”, which became the Arabic al-badinjan. This moved into Europe, again via Moorish Spain: one offshoot — keeping the Arabic article prefixed — became alberengena in Spanish and on to aubergine in French; another transformation became the botanical Latin melongena through losing the article and changing the “b” to an “m”; this then turned into the Italian melanzana and then to mela insana (the “mad apple”). Another branch, again without the “al”, became bringella in Portugal, whose traders took the plant, and their version of the name, full circle back to India, where it became brinjal in Anglo-Indian circles (the usual term among English speakers in India today is the Hindi baingan, or aubergine). In another branch of its history, the Portuguese word turned up in the West Indies, where it was again, but differently, corrupted to brown-jolly. All names for the same plant.