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Two English apr-words, part 2: ‘Apricot’

By Anatoly Liberman


Fruits and vegetables travel from land to land with their names. Every now and then they proclaim their country of origin. Such is the peach (though of course not in its present-day English form), whose name is a borrowing of Old French peche (Modern French pêche), ultimately from Latin Persicum malum “Persian apple.” It follows that the noun peach began its life as an adjective. To a modern speaker of French and English the distance between pêche ~ peach and persicum (with its phonetic pit gone) is unbridgeable, but Swedish persika, Dutch perzik, and Russian persik are quite transparent. Likewise, quince goes back to malum cotoneum ~ cydoneum, from Greek (Cydonea, now Canea). Even apple, the most often discussed name of a fruit, has been traced to the Italian place name Abella, but today few Indo-European scholars share the traditional view, even though the origin of this common European word remains a matter of dispute.

English etymological lexicography began with John Minsheu (Latinized as Minshæus), the author of a dictionary published in 1617. He wasn’t ahead of his age and few of his proposals present interest to us. Nor does anyone today outside the extremely narrow circle of language historians consult his dictionary. But when Minsheu’s name turns up in modern works, it sometimes makes people wonder or even feel indignant at his naiveté. For example, he told the often-quoted and universally derided story of a London boy who had no notion of what a horse looked like (!). When he saw or rather heard one, he asked his father about the source of neighing. Some time later he heard a rooster (in those days roosters were usually called cocks) and inquired: “Does the cock neigh too?” And such is allegedly the origin of the word cockney, signifying a dunce (this must have been a popular anecdote). Cockney is still a word of doubtful etymology, so we have relatively little to boast of.

Minsheu rather cautiously (much to his credit) suggested that apricot was derived quasi from Latin in aprico coctus “ripened in a sunny place.” (Apricus, along with Middle High German æbre, was mentioned in the post on April.) It all happened four hundred years ago. The learned lexicographer (and he was undoubtedly a learned man) could have run into Shakespeare in the street, with one of them listening to a neighing horse and the other warming himself in a sunny place. At that time, scientific etymology had to wait at least two centuries before it made its first steps, but Stephen Skinner, the author of the next etymological dictionary of English (1671), already wrote a good entry on apricot. Let it also be noted that abr- in apricot changed to apr- for no obvious reason (b didn’t have to become devoiced before r). Eduard Müller (or Mueller), a reliable nineteenth-century German etymologist, and The Century Dictionary, the latter with reference to Minsheu, admitted the possibility that the change was due to an association with apricus, and thus a product of folk etymology. Be that as it may, in one respect Minsheu was right; apricot is not a native name. It is a classical migratory word, a Wanderwort, as the Germans say, or to use a more elegant French term, un mot voyageur. The beginning of the story takes us to Ancient Rome.

Still Life by Paul Cézanne. Source: wikipaintings.org.

The Romans first called the fruit malum (or prunum) Armeniacum “Armenian apple (or plum)” and after that malum praecoquum “early ripening apple” (compare Engl. precocious) because apricots were considered to be a kind of peaches, but they ripen first. Latin coquere means “cook” (the English verb is a borrowing of it). Consequently, praecoquere means “cook, boil beforehand.” Our precocious children are (figuratively speaking) ready for use (cooked) too soon. The Greeks pronounced the Latin adjective as praikókon, but in Byzantium it changed to beríkokkon. In this form it became known to the Arabs, who shortened it and added the definite article. The result was al-burquq and al-barquq. The Modern Romance names of the apricot owe their existence to Arabic: Spanish albaricoque, Portuguese albricoque, Italian albercocca, albicocca (in dialects often without the Arabic article), and French apricot. It may seem more natural to suppose that the point of departure was the East rather than Rome, but things probably happened as described above.

English and French (French perhaps via Provençal) got this word from Portuguese or Spanish. The earliest recorded French form (1512) is aubercot and the earliest English one (1551) abrecock. Modern Engl. apricot (never mind the ways the first vowel sounds in America) was altered to adjust partly to French abricot (a usual procedure), but in French final t is mute. In some European languages, the name of the apricot ends in -s: German Aprikose, Dutch abrikoos (in Minsheu’s days it was still abrikok), Swedish and Norwegian aprikos, Danish abrikos, and Russian abrikos. The origin of final -s in the lending language is unclear (from the French plural? Rather unlikely). The vernacular Arabic name of the fruit is mishmish and mushmush. The recollection of the “Armenian apple” is not quite lost in modern languages. We discern the Armenian echo in Italian armillo, in southern German marille (with many variants), and in Dutch dialectal merelle ~ morille “sour cherry,” apparently under the influence of Latin amarellus “sour” (familiar to us from the sweet (!), but almond-flavored liqueur amaretto (Latin amar means “bitter”)). Swiss barelelli and barillen are reminiscent of the Italian dialectal bar- names. The index to Bengt Hasselrot’s detailed study of the linguistic geography of the apricot contains close to four hundred variants of the names used for this fruit.

If Leo Spitzer guessed well, there is one more trace of the apricot’s name beginning with ber-. French s’emberlucoquer ~ s’emberlificoter means “to feel confused” and when the verbs were not reflexive, they had the sense “deceive, seduce.” (Today they may be glossed as “have crazy ideas in one’s head.”) Fruits and plants whose form makes people think of genitals (and there is very little in the world that doesn’t) often become slang words for penis and vagina; the date, mandragora, and the fig are notorious in this respect. The apricot, as Spitzer pointed out, once stood for both “vulva” and “stupid.” He reconstructed the Old French noun birelicoq “blockhead” going back to Italian biricoccola ~ bericocola. The family name Billicozzo, recorded in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Tuscany, and Billicocco, the name of a devil occurring in Dante, allegedly contain the same root. (Regrettably, scurrilous allusions did not spread beyond the Romance speaking world. Otherwise, Shakespeare would not have missed such a chance, especially in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the word occurs as part of a list; in Richard II, the context is sad and non-erotic.)

The peregrinations of the apricot through Europe become more and more exciting at every step. But even without a brief stay in Tuscany, the way of the fruit is memorable: Rome — Greece — Byzantium — Arabia — the Iberian Peninsula — Italy, France, Germany, England, and the rest of the continent, from Scandinavia in the north to Russia in the east. The word, as Skeat put it, reached us in a very roundabout manner. In his Concise Dictionary, in which all words were supposedly expected to shrink, the manner is called indirect.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Recent Comments

  1. David Bauwens

    Fascinating stuff. One tiny thing: in Dutch we say abrikoos, not aprikoos.

  2. Alice Northover

    @David

    Thanks for catching the typo. I’ll correct it immediately.

    — Blog Editor Alice

  3. [...] general rule, all the involved etymologies are wrong, though, to be sure, exceptions exist (compare my summer post on apricot). On the other hand, very simple, naive derivations are also suspicious and smack of folk [...]

  4. Birdseed

    Is the Ber- thing related to the Hungarian word for apricot, barack? (with the “c” representing a ts sound)

  5. [...] The first thing I wanted to tell her was that I recently learned a new word that I thought she would like: Apricity. It means the warmth of the sun in winter. It comes from the Latin “apricus,” meaning “exposed to the sun.” And I bet more than one of you will have the same next question as I had: Does the word “apricot” come from that source, too? I thought it might, but it doesn’t. “Apricot” is more closely related to the word “precocious” — for the fruit’s reputation as an early ripener. (That’s a really truncated version of the story. The full, fascinating, nerd-appealing version can be found on the blog of Oxford University Press.) [...]

  6. Jane

    “Billicozzo, recorded in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Tuscany, and Billicocco” – any relation to King Lear, Act 3 scene 4 – “Pillicock sat on Pillicock hill”?

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