Food Facts & Lore

Cucumber, Cowcumber, Coocumber

the peculiar names of vegetables

Many of the names we use for things were inspired by simple, usually ancient observation. From our 21st-century point of view, these observations seem at times a bit far-fetched. Or at least it would be difficult to make an accurate guess. Take the carrot, for example. We easily assume that its name comes from an ancient word for “orange” or even “root.” Not even close.

We thought it would be fun to take a short journey into the etymology and derivations of a few common vegetable names. Why vegetables? No particular reason. Just one of those off-the-cuff ideas that popped up, like a sudden craving nothing will satisfy but to go ahead and indulge. It seemed like a fun topic for this purpose. A bit of research revealed it was worth pursuing.

Our language is rich in color and culture, as rich as the cuisines of the world. Here then, are a few common vegetables with uncommon name history, and a side dish of wordplay. Enjoy.

Vegetable – This may be the broadest term used in modern cuisine. It all started with the Old Latin word (isn’t all Latin old?), “vegetabilis,” which has been defined as “animating,” in the sense of growing, sprouting or quickening. One can easily imagine how seeing something sprout from the ground, seemingly out of nowhere, and quickly expand into a green and vibrant being might inspire such word concept as animating or quickening. There is awe and wonder in that word, isn’t there?

Cucumber – We like shortcuts, not that there is anything wrong with this. The word cukes is accepted. It is like a nickname of sorts; a term of endearment for a refreshing green veggie. But there was a time when how you pronounced the name of this vegetable could raise eyebrows and make you join the ranks of the snobs or the uneducated, depending on your audience and whether they cared to read between the lines. “Cowcumber was the accepted pronunciation in some parts of England in the late 1700’s. However, those who said “coocumber were thought to be holier-than-though snobs. The cowcumber folks were considered ignorant.

Potato – Childhood singing games have been popular in all cultures throughout history. Folklorists became interested in the phenomenon in the 1900’s. You may have heard the nursery rhyme, “One potato, two potato, three potato, four…” It was attributed to Mother Goose (17th century), author of numerous children’s stories and rhymes whose real identity remains a mystery. Some say she was a Bostonian; others argue that she was French. The first written account of children reciting this rhyme while at play was found in Canada and dated 1885. Some argue that Ireland must be the proper point of origin given its history with potatoes.

Tomato – Ah, the swelling fruit! The Aztec called it “tomatl.” The Spanish said “tomate.” And yes, “swelling fruit” is the closest translation. It may refer to the tomato’s blooming into a luscious, plump, irresistible fruit (we’re not here to argue whether it is a vegetable). On the other hand, it could be a reference to the inflammation associated with an allergic reaction to tomatoes. Plumpness seems the most likely association as it also inspired an early 20th-century usage whereby an attractive young woman would be called a “fine tomato.” Plumpness was believed to be attractive then, as it should be.

Carrot – So now, to the aforementioned carrot. In their natural, not yet mass-cultivated form, the predecessors to our modern carrot were either white or purple. White is the most ancient variety. Middle Eastern merchants may have introduced the purple variety to Europe sometime around the beginning of the 12th century. This is the stock that, through cultivation, led to the orange root that is familiar to us today. The confusion as to the name being some form of the word “orange” arose due to the popular expression used when referring to a red-haired person, “carrot head.” The true origin of the name carrot is an ancient word for “horn,” and refers to its shape, not its color.

Mushroom – We saved this one for last as the origin of its name is especially peculiar. In the 1500’s, in France, a person of lower social rank and diminished means who had had a sudden change of fortune and quickly rose to a higher station was called a “mousseron.” The term itself means, “moss.” By extension, mushroom. Like moss, they emerge rapidly from the most unlikely conditions. The analogy makes perfect sense.