Fruit is nature’s delicious dessert, and there are so many different fruits out there. In a world where you can get an apple no matter what time of year it is, it’s easy to forget that various fruit come from all over the world. There’s one clue to unlocking the history of the fruits we eat: the names. We looked at the history of some of the most interesting fruit names to see what they reveal about these foods.
The Origin Of Fruit Names From Around The World
The definition of the word “fruit” can be a bit confusing, which is why we’re starting there before we dive into other fruit names. A tomato is perhaps the best example of a fruit that seems like it really shouldn’t be a fruit. The explanation for this cognitive dissonance is that there’s a difference between a “botanical fruit” and a “culinary fruit.” A tomato meets the criteria for a botanical fruit — edible, contains a seed, at least somewhat sweet, grows on a plant — but not the culinary one.
As for the word “fruit” itself, it can be traced back to the Latin word fructus. This was itself derived from frui meaning “to enjoy.” When “fruit” first entered the English language, it described pretty much anything that could be grown from the ground (vegetables, nuts and so on). The word narrowed in meaning to the more modern definition some time around the 13th century.
Bananas are the most popular fruit in the world. They are believed to come from Southeast Asia, but the name “banana” comes from Africa: it’s derived from banan, which is the Arabic word for “finger.” And while you’re probably most accustomed to the common yellow banana, there are many different varieties.
There’s another common question about bananas: what’s a plantain? Plantains are a type of banana, and the main thing that distinguishes the two is how they’re used. Plantains tend to be less sweet and can be used in cooking (like fried plantains and other such foods). The name comes from the Latin platanus, meaning “plane,” because the leaves of the banana tree are flat and wide.
The word “pine” and “apple” are both English, and so this would seem like pineapple would be one of those fruit names with a straightforward etymology, but it’s not. Before the tropical pineapple, a “pineapple” was what we would today call a pine cone. Why would they ever call such an inedible, hard piece of a tree a “pineapple”? For a while, “apple” was just used to describe any roundish, foreign fruit. In fact, that’s the reason for why the story of Adam and Eve often represents the fruit of the tree of knowledge as an apple; The Bible doesn’t actually mention apples at any point. At some point after colonists discovered this tropical fruit in South America, they started calling them pineapples, and the old pineapples became known as pine cones.
There’s also something of a meme about the fact that many, many languages call pineapples “ananas,” which is based on the word they were called in the Tupi language of Brazil. The pineapple is native to Brazil and the surrounding countries, so it’s likely Spanish colonists discovered the fruit and started calling it the anana, which then spread to other European languages. The English, however, particular about their fruit names, stuck with their own term.
Originally domesticated along the Yangtze River in China, peaches have been around for thousands of years. They traveled to Europe during the time of the Romans and so the word “peach” comes to English by way of Latin. The Romans called them persicum, which meant “Persian apples” because they were traded by Persians. (So yes, this is another example of foreign fruits being called “apples.”)
The word “avocado” can be traced all the way back to the Nahuatl āhuacatl, as the fruit is likely native to Mexico where the Aztecs had settled. One of the more famous facts about this is that this word also meant “testicle” in Nahuatl, and perhaps the fruit was named because of a passing resemblance. Either way, the Spanish began calling it aguacate, which slowly morphed into the English avocado.
The word “melon” took a somewhat roundabout route to getting into the English language. It’s from the Old French melon, which is from the Medieval Latin melonem, which is from the even longer Latin melopeponem. And this word itself was a mashup of pepon (“ripe,” which is also the root of “pumpkin”) and mēlon (“apple”). So yes, in a way “melon” just means “apple.”
For another linguistic melon, the cantaloupe is native to Persia (present-day Iran), but the fruit is named after Cantalupo, a papal county in Italy. This is allegedly the first place that the cantaloupes were grown in Europe.
Lemon and Lime
Long before Sprite united these two fruits in one soda, lemons and limes have been entangled. They both come from Asia, and they’re both citrus fruit. They both can be traced back to limun, a Persian word that could be applied to any citrus fruit. It’s likely that the word stretches back even further to an Austronesian term, as the fruit is indigenous to the Malay archipelago.
While eventually “lemon” and “lime” got sorted out into separate fruit names in English, it wasn’t as easy in Spanish. Most Spanish-speaking countries call lemons limones, but limes aren’t as clearly labeled. Mexico calls limes limas, but they are also called limones (so not really any help differentiating between the two). Spain has called them limones verdes (“green lemons”) and Latin American countries, including Chile, don’t even have a word for lime.
We’ve written before about how orange the fruit came before orange the color, but where does the word “orange” come from in the first place? It’s probably from the Sanskrit naranga-s, which would make sense because the fruit is indigenous to India, where Sanskrit was spoken. Many languages in Europe are some form of this ancient word, whether it be the Italian arancia or Spanish naranja.
Kiwi (or Kiwifruit)
Kiwi has strong associations with New Zealand — it’s the name of their national bird, and the word kiwi mimics the sound kiwis make — so you might think that’s where this fruit is originally from. But you’d be wrong! Kiwis are actually from the Yangtze River area of China. Missionaries brought the fruit to New Zealand, but they called them Chinese gooseberries because they were from China and similar in flavor to gooseberries. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when New Zealand began exporting the fruit, that people started calling them kiwifruit.
The passion fruit, native to Brazil, has probably one of the weirdest fruit names origins of any on this list. When Spanish missionaries were first exploring South America, they would use tools to try to convert the native people to their religion. One such tool was a fruit they found, which they called flor de las cinco llagas, or “flower of the five wounds.” This flower, according to the missionaries, represented the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and so the fruit that came after the flower became known as passion fruit. You know, like the Passion of the Christ. We don’t fully get it, either.