Etymology of the Eggplant

Here’s another example of Indonesia making a mockery out of us.

When we were in Indonesia, one of our favorite dishes was sayur asem, sour Javanese soup.  We included a recipe for it awhile back.  Sayur asem, though, has some crazy ingredients that we didn’t know about and tried to figure out.  One of them was the elusive melinjo.  We complained that when we looked it up in the dictionary, the dictionary just said "melinjo fruit", which wasn’t very helpful.  However, when we went to the store in Indonesia we bought a pack of something that said "melinjo" on it and which looked a lot like little round eggplants.  Cut up, they are exactly what we would find in our soup, and they acted just like an eggplant, so we figured that an eggplant is a good substitute.

Now, the melinjo episode has never left our minds.  Enter Malaysia.  In Malaysia, lots of the words for vegetables are different.  Eggplant in Indonesian is terung, but in Malaysian it’s brinjal.  Today, I (TP) was changing at the gym and for some reason was thinking about vegetables, and it occurred to me that melinjo and brinjal are quite close.  Using my heretofore useless Articulatory Phonology from college, I recalled that both m and b are voiced bilabials, and that l and r are both alveolar liquids.  It is common as languages evolve for letters like m and b to replace one another; the same goes with l and r.  Given that in normal speech melinjo is pronounced more like MLIN-jaw, it’s not so hard to see how brinjal could become melinjo.  JM and I decided that it was likely that melinjo came to refer specifically to the green round eggplants in Indonesia, and terung to the other purple kinds.

Great.  So we got home and sought to use the OED to figure this out.  We had some luck, and found some things out about the etymology of eggplants.  Aubergine is a cognate to alberengena in Spanish, which comes from the Arabic al-bethinjan.  This in turn came from vatin-gana, Sanskrit for something to do with "the class (that removes) the wind-disorder (windy humour)", seemingly something to do with the gaseous effects of eggplant consumption.  And, indeed, brinjal comes to Malay from Portuguese.  The local Austronesian word, terung, is kept in Indonesia, but has died out in Malaysia.

But all of this means nothing because we were wrong about what melinjo fruits were.  We did a Google Image Search for melinjo, and came up with puzzling results.  Rather than the little round eggplants, all the pictures showed little green and red things that look like raw olives.  Indeed, we do remember these from our sayur asem in Indonesia, but just thought they were unidentifiable–people we asked kept telling us they were peanuts.  So melinjo fruits are actually some little weird fruity/nutty things.  They are good, but they’re not eggplants.  We still have yet to find melinjo fruits in a store, and we are not sure exactly what those green eggplant things were after all.  Probably actually a local variety of eggplant, just mislabelled.  We’ll look for terung hijau (green eggplants) at the store next time.

Comments 10

  1. Josh June 20, 2005

    Food etymology is a disaster, nobody who names these things has any idea what they’re talking about. Imagine ancient English linguists 1500 years from now trying to figure out what “pepper” meant.

  2. Jeff June 21, 2005

    “Today, I (TP) was changing at the gym and for some reason was thinking about vegetables…”
    Too much information.

  3. James June 21, 2005

    OK, I have another food etymology question: Zuchinni. The Brits call it croquettes after the French, but pronounce it kro-zhetts. And South Africans, for no good reason at all, call it “baby marrow” which to me sounded like a product of cannibalistic infanticide and kept me from ordering anything on the menu with zuchinni for some time. I finally had to get a waiter to bring me one, so I could be sure I wasn’t eating children before I ordered it. Why on God’s green earth would anyone call it “baby marrow”?

  4. Josh June 21, 2005

    French for zucchini is not “croquette” but “courgette.”

  5. James June 22, 2005

    Hence “after the French,” as opposed to “just like the French.” And that’s a total dodge on the “baby marrow” question, by the way.

  6. Marto January 18, 2006

    The only thing I can think of as the closest to the green eggplant description is the “young papaya”. It’s not yet riped, so it’s harder and green in colour. I hope this helps.

  7. rexfromars January 29, 2006

    The French word for zucchini is “courgette” – just as it is in Britain.
    “Croquettes” are a type of fritter. Salmon croquettes have long been a staple of Southern American cooking, and even now show up all gussied up on many menus in “New Southern” restaurants.

  8. Joe March 20, 2007

    i’m not a member.. just browsing and i thought some british input might be useful..
    like the man said.. we use the word courgette here.. (koor-zhet) just like the french.. we also have a similar but much larger vegetable called a marrow.. so baby marrow will just be a smaller version of that.. much like a courgette lol.. nothing to do with babies or bone marrow im sure.. 🙂 hope this helps

  9. Tom February 9, 2013

    You’re right! We have written a whole new post correcting that post. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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