Melons and apples of discord

Etymology map of the fruit apple (malus domestica) in different European languages
The word apple never falls far from the apple tree word
Etymology map of the fruit melon (cucumis melo) in different European languages
Melons, not watermelons

This is like comparing apples and oranges! Notice that in Italian is quite obvious that mela (apples) and melone (melon) are closed related etymologically. The Greek word μῆλον (mâlon) generally meant fruit but particularly was used for apples. Thus it is still present in some fruit’s names: For example, Spanish melocotón “peach” (see below).

Just above this text we are showing the map of Cucumis melo (known as melon) from Greek Μῆλον ´Πεπων (Melon Pepon). Most languages retain the first part, but some language in the Balkan peninsula took the second.

Some Slavic languages and Hungarian, however, use a totally different Greek root: Κυδωνιον Μῆλον (Kudṓnion Mêlon). It means “Cydonian apple”, which evolved in English (and other languages) into “quince” (see bellow). This is as messy and it sounds.

Turkic languages share their own root. Not Greek at all, coming as far away as from the Himalayas: It is possible that comes from Tibetan ག་གོན (ga gon) a word for melon and gourd.

Apricots, pluma, and peaches can be disconcerting:

Etymology map of the fruit apricot (prunus armenica) in different European languages
A precocious fruit from Armenia
Etymology map of the fruit plum (prunus domestica) in different European languages
Dry or fresh, same etymology

What a big mess!

Plums, peaches, and apricots belong to the same family, genus Prunus. It is not surprising since there are very similar. More surprising is to realize cherries, nectarines and almonds also belong to this group. However, the most surprising fact is that their etymologies are entangled. Most languages derived the word apricot from Arabic al-barquq, which literally translates as “the-plum”. The word was taken from Byzantine Greek berikokkia which is probably from Latin (mālum) praecoquum “early-ripening (apple, fruit)”. The reason is the apricots ripen earlier in summer.

Its scientific name, Prunus armeniaca, reminds us that for many centuries it was believed to be from Armenia. In fact, it was cultivated there from Ancient time, but now we know that the domestication happened somewhere in Central Asia. Later Alexander the Great introduced them to Europe.

Another confusing etymology is that both fruits are supposed to be from Damascus. Unlike other Slavic languages, that use a word derived from Sliva for plums (Prunus domestica), Czechs uses švestka, an adaptation of the German word Zwetschge, a type of plum, which originated from Latin damascēna and this from Ancient Greek δαμασκηνά (damaskēná) “damascene plums”. Modern Greek δαμάσκηνο (damáskino). But in Portuguese and Spanish Damascos are apricots! It is simply shocking to discover that plums in Portuguese and Galician are etymologically related to Czech and Greek: Latin damascēna (prūna) > Vulgar Latin damascina > Old Portuguese dameja > Modern Portuguese ameixa.

It also happens in Turkic languages: ərik is an apricot in Azerbaijani (and similarly in Kazakh, Tatar, and Bashkir). But erik is plum in Turkish.

Etymology map of the fruit peach (prunus persica) in different European languages
The Persian fruit

Is it really Persian?

Peach has a quite homogenous etymological map. Only a few languages adopted a term that does not come from Latin Persica (Persian). Like many other fruits, even if the Romans believed it was from what is nowadays Iran, the truth is that it comes from China. Slavic languages borrowed the word through a series of deep transformations. So Polish brzoskwinia, despite seeming to be very different, it comes from the same root. The same happens to Hungarian barack.

American Spanish and Greek share another Latin root: dūrusacinus, meaning “hard berry or grape”. Most Turkic languages borrowed from Persian šaftālu which originally meant “milk plum”. Kurdish uses this term along with the Arabic one, Kawka, that in ancient times might have meant “Thornbush”. Another metaphor is present in some Celtic languages where they called something like the “woolly fruit” (either plum o apple, depending on the specific language, check the legend). Finally, in Spanish from Spain, we can find the term melocotón, whose etymological root will appear again in this post, since it comes from Latin malum cotonium, the name that received quince. The name comes from Kydonia, a city in Crete. However, it might appear to be from “cotton”, although this might be a folk etymology. In the Spanish Wikipedia we can read:

“Prunus persica, originalmente Amygdalus persica L., melocotonero (del latín malus cotonus, «manzana algodonosa» —en alusión a la piel del fruto—)”
Etymology map of the fruit quince (cydonia oblonga) in different European languages
The apples or pears from Cyprus


Etymology map of the fruit "fig" (ficus carica) in different European languages
We did not give a fig for this map at all

Aubergine or eggplant

Etymology map of the fruit aubergine or eggplant (Solanum melongena) in different European languages


Etymology map of the word olive (olea europea) in several European languages
as fatty as avocados

The citrics

Etymology map of the word lemon (citrus lemon) in several European languages
Lemon or citron

Since lemons appeared first time in northeast India, the name is originally Sanskrit, Nimbu, which means lemon and lime. We can not know for sure. Then it reached Europe thanks to Persians, Ottomans ,and specially Arabs. According to some sources as early as the 2nd century. However, the original term might have come from even further, from nowadays Malaysia. Genetic studies support this theory.

In the center and north of Europe, another root exists, like in Latin citrus. It comes from Ancient Greek for cedar: kedros. Apparently, in Athens, the smell of citrics and thujas were similar. The ultimate origin is completely unknown, but some suspect it might be some kind of borrowing from a Semitic language.

As we mentioned above the Romans called them citron and later it became the scientific term for a genus (citrus), an acid (citric), a grass (citronella) or a mineral (citrine).

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  1. I have the hots for Britt Ekland

    Can they make this map a little bigger? I don’t like having to squint.

    1. Now it should be ok 😉

  2. Sorry but your Melon map contains two huge mistakes.the Frenchman for Melon is not Abricot, and the Swiss is not Abricosa.

    1. Thanks for the correction. We have just fixed this map.

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