“Dada, do you know there are rocks in the garden?” asked my niece Eira. The four-year-old was making acquaintance with the world around her. “And there are many kinds of trees as well,” Eira continued. “Do they bear fruit?” I asked her. My niece paused for a second, drew her breath and said, “Only berries”. “Aren’t there elephant apples in the garden, Eiru?” The query, almost in reflex, left my niece astounded: “Dada, there are no elephant apples. You are making a joke”.
The next 15 minutes went in trying to convince the four-year old that there is indeed a fruit by that name. “It’s also called chaalta, Eiru”. “Chaalta is okay, Dada. But how can there be elephant apples. You mean haathi apple?”
I share my niece’s incredulity. Much of it, perhaps, has to do with the English language’s lack of creativity in naming fruits. Why could they do no better than make tropical fruits seem like variants of apples and berries when, botanically, they are far apart? What explains the goose in the gooseberry, and what is so wooden about the wood apple? Surely, pineapples don’t grow on pine trees?
The father of taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, called the chaalta, Dillenia indica in the 10th edition of his Systema Natura. The Latin nomenclature was the Swedish scientist’s way of honouring Johann Jacob Dillenius, a 17th-18th century German botanist and professor of botany at Oxford. But how about honouring the ways of the people for whom the fruit is a part of their daily lives? Called ou tenga in Assamese, the fruit is used to make a tangy gravy for fish dishes. The sweet-sour taste of the pulpy fruit makes for a lip-smacking pickle. It is called karmal in Marathi, liva in Tamil and Telugu, chilta in Malayalam.
Why couldn’t the English, like the Portuguese, have borrowed from several Indian regions? Arguably more rapacious imperialists than the English, the Portuguese were somewhat accommodating when they encountered the king of fruits in India — they named it manga, a corruption of the fruit’s Tamil name, mangay.
While the Portuguese were making acquaintance with the tropics, the English language seemed to be having a tough time with the produce of the New World. According to the English Etymolological Dictionary, “In Middle English as late as the 17th century, apple was the generic term for all fruits, other than berries, but including nuts”.
Thus, dates went by the Old English name of fingeræppla, literally finger apples. “Cucumbers,” notes the Dictionary, “were eorþæppla, literally “earth-apples”.
Apple-obsession was common in other parts of the world — and in other times in history — as well. The Ancient Greek would describe all foreign fruits as melopepon, melon apples or gourd-apple. And, the French call the potato, pomme de terre, literally “earth-apple”.
But the English did borrow from other languages at times. According to the Etymological Dictionary, Middle English took cherry from the French cerise, mistook it for a plural and stripped it of the “s”.
Apricot has several etymological influences — the Portuguese albricoque, Arabic al-birquq, Byzantine Greek berikokkia, and the French abricot.
But even the peach seems to have an apple-connection. The Etymological Dictionary says that it is derived from the Modern French, pêche, which seems to have its roots in the Latin Malum Persicum, literally Persian apple.
In the colonies, the English botanists did have occasional bursts of inspiration. The custard apple, for example, was so named because its flesh apparently tastes like the quintessential English dessert.
What about the elephant apple, then? Apparently, it was so named because the fruit is a favourite of elephants.
Eiru remains unconvinced: “Haathis are huge, but apples are small and red, Dada”.
This article originally appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Bon Appétit! Like Pineapples and Oranges’