Fascinating etymology of Eggplant and Melanzana

Photo from Wikimedia commons contributed to public domain by Øyvind Holmstad
Photo from Wikimedia commons contributed to public domain by Øyvind Holmstad

Did you ever wonder why the English word Eggplant is so different than the Italian word Melanzana?

I was really curious, so I started researching the etymology of the word Eggplant. As a linguist, I was interested to know how the term for this vegetable is so different in the languages that I speak. Melanzana in Italian, Eggplant in English, Verengena in Spanish, and Aubergine in French…kind of interesting, right?

Well..it turns out the etymology of these words is really pretty fascinating!

In the Wikipedia article about Eggplant we learn a bit about the derivation of the word:

The S. melongena, or commonly known as the Eggplant is a delicate, tropical perennial often cultivated as a tender or half-hardy annual in temperate climates. Some 18th-century European cultivars were yellow or white and resembled goose or hen’s eggs, hence the name "eggplant”

Other names all derive ultimately from a Dravidian word, with modern reflexes in Malayam vaṟutina, Tamil vaṟutuṇai. This was borrowed into Sanskrit and Pali as vātiṅgaṇa, vātigama, which in turn was borrowed by Persian as bādingān, then by Arabic as (al-)bāḏinjān. The Arabic name is the common source of all the European names for this plant, but through two distinct paths of transmission, with the melongene family coming through the eastern Mediterranean, and the aubergine family through the western Mediterranean.

In the eastern Mediterranean, Byzantine Greek borrowed bāḏinjān as μελιτζάνα melitzána, influenced by Greek μελανο- ‘black’. That form came in Medieval Latin as melongena. Though melongene has become obsolete in the standard English, as has the French melanjan, it persists in the Caribbean English melongene or meloongen. The usual word in Italian remains melanzana.

Even the archaic English name mad-apple comes from the melongena family: in Italian, the word melanzana was reinterpreted in Italian as mela insana, and translated into English as mad apple.

Besides the really interesting etymology of the word, melanzana is a pivotal element in the recipes for many Italian dishes. For example, we published a recipe for Pasta alla Norma that features eggplant on our blog awhile back: http://www.madeinitalymall.com/blog/pasta-alla-norma/

I have also been researching the origins of a number of other popular elements of Italian cuisine besides the eggplant. I have published articles about several of the key ingredients in Italian cuisine, but perhaps one of the more interesting finds was the history of the tomato: http://www.madeinitalymall.com/blog/round-trip-of-the-tomato-from-america-to-italy-and/

Ci sentiamo presto, Lina

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