I was watching my lovely wife eat a Greek salad – something I try to do at least once a week – and as I looked at the olives, I had a thought about the word Kalamata. “Why,” I thought, “it must come from kala ‘fine, beautiful’ and mata ‘eyes.'” But then I thought that couldn’t be quite right.
What’s the matter? The mata is the matter. “Eyes” in Greek is μάτια matia, not mata. (And that’s modern Greek; Classical Greek has ophthalmos for “eye”.) It’s in Malay that mata means “eye” or “eyes”. You might recognize it in the name Mata Hari, which means, figuratively, “sun”, or, more literally, “day’s eye”. Think of it – a woman famed, rightly or wrongly, as a seductress and spy had a name that could be rendered in English as Daisy (yes, daisy comes from day’s eye). Anyway, Mata Hari’s real name was Margaretha, or Grietje for short (just think of how she, as an exotic dancer, might greet ya).
But it turns out that the mata in Kalamata most likely does come from matia. So the olive is like a beautiful eye? Well, it may or may not be, but it’s named after a large city on the south shore of the Peloponnesus, and it’s the city that is – or may be – named after beautiful eyes. It may be a reference to a lovely icon of the Virgin Mary in a local church. Or maybe not.
Well, what can you do but call ’em as you see ’em. And in Kalamata I see a few interesting things. I may see four eyes in it, a a a a – the eyes of a Klimt painting, perhaps – or four olives, without which the word might be farklempt. To hear Kalamata, it’s rather reminiscent of the “good day” Greeks say to greet you, καλη μερα kalé mera (/kali mera/ – some vowels have merged upwards in modern Greek). Perhaps that’s what you’d say to a kathakali master if you met him in a Greek restaurant in Kalamazoo… although, given that kathakali is a south Indian dance-drama form, he might speak only Malayalam. And Kalamazoo comes from a Potawatomi (or perhaps Ojibway) word meaning… um, well, there’s a lot of argument about what it means. The differing views are collimated… by which I mean that they are going in the same direction (like light rays made parallel by a lens) but, as is ever the case with parallel lines, they will never meet. Might as well take olive them.
Well, we may eye these etymological conundra in a daze, but in the end what most people get from Kalamata – aside from a nice black olive – is a sense of exoticism. Kalamata olives must be much more special than ordinary olives. The K gives it a bit of a kick, of course (Calamata looks more like a college in suburban L.A., doesn’t it?), and that set of four canonic syllables, mixing mellifluous and mechanical, with four identical vowels (well, not the way we say it in English, but originally), calls automatically to a sense of the foreign, the exotic, as it dances on your tongue.
Not that it is dancing like the Hindu goddess Kali. Her name may mean “the black one” but it’s not black as in the olive; it also means “death”, “time”, “change” – she is the consort of Shiva. She’s rather more calamity than Kalamata. You might think that to have her on your tongue would be the pits, though of course it’s not all as simple as that. She’s important in tantra, for instance. And change can be good – change in general, but also exact change, when paying for your geek word salad. I mean Greek.