I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Tachybaptus.
What a luscious word, with three long vowels and soft consonants including a gentle -zh-. As luscious as the generously curved, glossy deep purple giant berry it describes, made into a meltingly delicious dish rich with olive oil, smilingly served to you in a wayside auberge by an aubergiste as generously proportioned as the aubergine itself. How sad that Americans call it by the arid name “eggplant”; they are missing a lot.
But wait a moment, why should a vegetable be called after an inn where, no doubt, carrots and broad beans are equally on the menu? The answer is that it isn’t. The name is very old, and has come a long way across Asia along with the aubergine itself.
It has been cultivated in India since before records began, and its first known name is the Middle Indo-Aryan *vātiñjaṇa or vātiṅgaṇa (the asterisk denotes a hypothetical reconstruction of a word not actually found). In Sanskrit it became vātiga-gama, and the modern word in Hindi is baiṅgana, while in Urdu it is baingan.
But long before that, the plant had started on its way westward. In Persia it acquired the name bādingān, and when it reached the Arab lands it became (al-)bāḏinjān. Well, with the addition of the Arabic definite article al-, you can see where this word is going, but there are more detours on the way.
When the Arabs took Spain, the aubergine marched with them, and its name went into Spanish as berenjena. From here it jumped sideways into Portugal as beringela a name that was later to travel east again through the Portuguese colonies and return to India as brinjal, familiar from the Indian English language of restaurant menus.
From Spain the plant and its name did not penetrate the rest of Europe until some decades after the Reconquista, in the early 16th century. It is found in Catalan as albergínia.
Farther east, there had been another deviation: a metathesis, or shifting of consonants, caused the name to get into medieval Greek as μελιτζάνα (melitzana) and then into botanical Latin as melongena, first seen in 1561. It is thought that the name was influenced by the Greek word μέλας (melas), “black”, because of the dark colour of its skin.
Not all aubergines are dark: they range from white, sometimes streaked with pale mauve, to the deepest purple, and in size from the tiny, bitter Thai “pea” aubergines to the great truncheons seen in the west. The English name “eggplant” was given to an egg-sized and -shaped white variety in 1767.
The modern botanical name of the plant is Solanum melongena, and that points to another obstacle in its path. It is related, and visibly similar, to the black nightshade, Solanum nigrum, whose little black fruits look like miniature aubergines, and are poisonous. It was feared that the aubergine was poisonous too. In Italy, where its name is melanzana, it is popularly said that this comes from the Latin mala insana, “mad apple”, because it drives those who eat it insane.
(The closely related potato, Solanum tuberosum, whose berries actually are poisonous, met equal resistance in Europe and in some regions was still shunned in the 18th century. When the American scientist Benjamin Thompson was employed by the Prince-Elector of Bavaria in 1785 to devise a cheap but nourishing soup for the inhabitants of workhouses, he found that it was necessary to boil the potatoes behind a screen until they fell apart, or the starving inmates would refuse to touch the soup. For this work he was awarded a title of the Holy Roman Empire, and became Count Rumford.)
Finally, after its long and circuitous journey, the noble fruit acquired its French name aubergine in 1750, from Catalan. In 1794 the word arrived in England, where the name “eggplant” was already current and had crossed the Atlantic.
In Turkey, where through a different metathesis its name has become patlıcan (c is pronounced like English j), the aubergine is made into the famous dish İmam bayıldı, which means “the imam fainted”. Some say that this dish of aubergine stuffed with onion, garlic and tomatoes and braised in oil is so delicious that it caused the cleric to collapse with pleasure; others that he keeled over in horror when he found out how much expensive olive oil had gone into its preparation. The aubergine’s sponge-like ability to absorb oil is sometimes mitigated by salting before cooking to wilt it, though it is hard to wipe enough salt off the slices before cooking.
According to the Free OnLine Dictionary of Computing, “aubergine” is “A secret term used to refer to computers in the presence of computerphobic third parties.” In French slang it means a traffic warden, from their purple uniforms.
Back in its native land, the aubergine has entered folklore. At tinyurl.com/bl7lrzh you will find the enchanting story of Princess Aubergine, who grew inside the fruit and was liberated from it to attract the eye of a king and the jealousy of a wicked queen. This story was collected by the indefatigable writer and folklorist Flora Annie Steel and published in her book Tales of the Punjab in 1894. It was, she said, told to her by “an old woman at Kasūr in the Lahore district.”