Hold the Cilantro

The differences between American and British English are of course numerous, and I’ve touched on them before. One area that’s always intrigued me though is food. 

There’s of course the classic chips/crisps and fries/chips confusion, but there’s at least a bit of logic behind that. Both crisps and chips are chips cut off potatoes, at least. But I was surprised to realise that the names for many herbs and vegetables are markedly different between the two versions of English. For example (British English on the left):

Coriander – Cilantro

Rocket – Arugula

Turnip/Swede – Rutabaga

Courgette – Zucchini

Aubergine – Eggplant

As these names are so completely different from each other, when I was younger, and heard people talk about zucchini and cilantro on TV, I assumed that these were simply foods only available in America that I’d never encountered before. It was only much later that there were simply different names for foods I was already familiar with.

The reasons for such differences are actually fairly straightforward, and largely location-based. European names for foods understandably go through a few changes as they pass through the continent’s many languages (e.g. Latin eruca, French diminutive form roquette, English rocket). In the United States in the 19th and early 20th century though, many words were brought directly by first-generation immigrants from their native language into English, without therefore many different changes.

Arugula for example, comes from an idiomatic Italian version of the standard Italian rucola. Likewise, zucchini comes from zucchina (perhaps also from a particular dialect, as the plural of zucchina is zucchine, being feminine). Cilantro is Spanish, coming from Mexico, and rutabaga comes almost directly from the Swedish dialectical word rotabagge. While swede is often used to refer to turnips or a type of turnip in Ireland and the UK, as they originated in Sweden, obviously Swedish immigrants weren’t going to call it that, so they used their own name, especially as they didn’t find them in the United States when they first arrived.

Eggplant, however, is a bit of an exception. It’s easy to be arrogant and assume it’s a simplistic descriptive American term for a food which we sophisticated Europeans use an elegant French name. Aubergine actually has Arabic origins, as it was introduced from India to Spain by Arabic settlers. The Arabic name was al-bâdinjân, in turn derived, via a few steps, from the Sanskrit vātiga-gama, both of which meant eggplant. The reason for the name is that the common varieties at the time were quite different from the modern dark purple we know, and looked a lot like goose eggs.  Eggplant thus became a common name in English in the middle of the 18th century, and was therefore imported to America. However, at some later point, the French name became fashionable in Britain (probably because aristocrats started eating it) and it became the standard form. But, as has happened before, American English wasn’t as exposed to such trends, being all the way across the Atlantic, and many Americans were consciously attempting to forge a separate linguistic identity from Britain anyway.

One unfortunate side-effect of this is that eggplant came to be used as a racial slur against Africans and African Americans. Perhaps aubergine, with its soft French sounds, wouldn’t have been used in such a way, but who knows. At least now eggplant doesn’t seem to be used in that sense much, if at all, and eggplant is just another of those linguistic and culinary curiosities which keep English on both sides of the Atlantic distinct.

11 thoughts on “Hold the Cilantro

  1. My family often talks about this over the dinner table! My son is fascinated by the chips/ crisps/ fries difference and always wants to know “so what do Americans call big chips? Wedges? Steak cut chips?” Very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Australian English is a mixture of British and American, usually leaning towards British. I would say (and I assume I’m typical here): coriander, rocket, turnip/swede, zucchini and eggplant. I could identify cilantro, courgette and aubergine, but arugula and rutabaga are utterly foreign to me.

    This evening a student mentioned ‘fondant’, which I said I could recognise as a food-related word, and probably had something to do with cakes, but I had to search online to be sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d always known “fondant” as a dessert/chocolate word, but recently learned it’s used in French for a particular style of making potato, and I think it’s entering English in that sense too.


  3. I can’t tell you how confusing it was to go grocery shopping in New Zealand for the first little while. I also thought that “cane” pepper was a new type of pepper I hadn’t heard of until I finally realized that’s just how my flatmates pronounced “cayenne”.

    Liked by 1 person

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