guava

Christina Vasilevski finds this word really odd. It even makes her giggle. I wonder who else it has that effect on.

Not me. It pleases me. It has a nice tropical sort of flavour to it for me, partly from the echoes of such words as guacamole, Guam, Guadalcanal, and lava, but more importantly from where I first encountered it. When I was 13, my family went to Hawai‘i, and there, at breakfast, I encountered for the first time the word guava and the beverage guava juice. I loved it instantly, and had it every morning for the rest of the trip. And then it was quite some time before I had it again, because back in the early 1980s it was not widely available in Alberta.

My next salient recollection involving guava comes from the later 1990s, when I bought some guava paste at a Chinese grocery for use in cooking. It’s a passable thickener and a heckuva sweetener, but it doesn’t quite have the full flavour and tang I had come to know and love.

And now there is a third thing I think of right away when I think of guava: Sauvignon Blanc from Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand. Oh, we all know NZ Sauv Blanc, right? (Or anyway the wine geeks among us do.) Gooseberry and so on. But the stereotypical NZ Sauv Blanc is from Marlborough, on the north end of the South Island. Hawke’s Bay is in the middle of the east side of the North Island – different conditions. And I found, in tasting several from wineries such as Craggy Range, Trinity Hill, and Sileni, that the Sauvignon Blancs from around there have, riding along with what you would expect, a solid line of guava right up the middle. I encourage you to try some for yourself and see.

Does the word guava have a solid line of guava passing through it? Well, first, do you know what guava tastes like? If not, go find some guava juice and drink it. I’m not going to make a fool of myself trying to describe it for you. Do you think you could describe the taste of, say, a banana or an apricot to someone who had never had one? But assuming you know the taste of guava, well, it’s up to you to taste guava and decide for yourself; taste is individual.

For me, I think the word does fit reasonably well. The /gw/ onset is reminiscent of drinking, and guava juice is one of those things that are great when you’re thirsty (or when you’re not) but seem to make you want to drink even more. The rounded u and pointed v – two letters that (in general, not in this word) were originally the same letter, back in Latin and older English – are like the sweet and round but slightly tart and sharp flavour of the guava. And the a letters stand for a sound (or two sounds in most English pronunciation, since the latter one is reduced) that is associated with the open mouth, ready to receive, and also with the sound of satisfaction one makes having received something good. The repeated a’s – and if we still used one letter for both u and v, we would have a repeated pair, vava or uaua – are reminiscent of the repetition that is a common feature in Polynesian languages. And what’s more tropically blissful than the image most of us get (rightly or wrongly) when thinking of Polynesia?

Not that the guava is originally a Polynesian fruit. Nor is the word guava from a Polynesian language. Nope, it’s from Arawak, as best we can tell – a South American language. The guava is a fruit originally from the tropical Americas, though it’s grown all over the tropical and subtropical world now (because it’s so yummy – and, I suspect, so easily grown). The original Arawak word is guayabo, and it comes to us by way of the Spanish guayaba. Which, it occurs to me, sounds a bit like “go have a” – as in go have a glass of guava juice.

Which I would if I could, but I have none in the fridge. Dang it, now I’m all thirsty.

One response to “guava

  1. “I’m not going to make a fool of myself trying to describe it for you. Do you think you could describe the taste of, say, a banana or an apricot to someone who had never had one? But assuming you know the taste of guava, well, it’s up to you to taste guava and decide for yourself; taste is individual.”

    Clever!

    We call it ‘Amrood’ in Hindi. I had a hard time assigning ‘guava’ to the image which I had, when I first learned the word in English, because Guava seems like some giant, whereas fruit is mostly small and tasty.

    You had to wait 13 long years before tasting it, though you didn’t know that you were waiting!

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