Jerusalem artichokes and Jordan almonds: are they from the Middle East?

Feb 13, 2012 by

 

Despite what their names suggest neither Jerusalem artichokes nor Jordan almonds are from the Middle East. Both expressions are examples of folk etymology, a process by which the form (and sometimes the meaning) of a word is changed due to erroneous popular beliefs about its derivation. In simple terms, folk etymology is guesswork gone wrong.

Let’s take the Jerusalem artichoke first. Despite its name, it has no relation to Jerusalem, and it is not a type of artichoke. The ‘artichoke’ part of the plant’s name comes from the taste of its edible tuber (see picture on the left). Apparently, the first reference to artichoke in connection with this plant is due to Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer, who sent the first samples of Jerusalem artichoke to France, noting that its taste was similar to an artichoke.

But what of the Jerusalem part? This is where folk etymology comes in. The origin of this term is with the Italian name of the plant, girasole, which literally means ‘turns with/to the sun’. This is the Italian name of sunflower, a similar and biologically related plant: both Jerusalem artichoke and sunflower belong to the Helianthus genus. So it was Italian immigrants to the U.S. who brought the plant’s name with them. With time, it has morphed into Jerusalem, a word more familiar to American English speakers.

 

Jordan almonds too have no connection to a locale in the Middle East. The name of this popular confection comes from the French word jardin ‘garden’. In essence, these are ‘cultivated almonds’. The French word, much like the Italian girasole, morphed into something more familiar for an English ear.

 

 

 

 

Other examples of French words that have been changed due to folk etymology include: causeway, which comes from the now obsolete causey, a modified version of the French causée, which has been assimilated with the native English way; chaise lounge, which derives from the original French chaise longue ‘long chair’; and the Louisiana staple crayfish (or crawfish), which comes from the French crevis, itself derived from Germanic krebiz ‘little crab’, and assimilated to the English fish.

 

 

 

 

 


Related Posts

Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below:

      
  • In current Italian, Jerusalem artichokes are called topinambur, a very unusual name borrowed from French (apparently from the name of a Northern American native tribe). However, an alternative name listed by Italian dictionaries, which I had never heard of before, appears to be “girasoli del Canada”, so maybe Italian immigrants to America gave the name to the plant when they saw it locally, and then the name travelled back to Italy?

    • You are correct, topinambur is another name for the same plant, as well as American artichoke and Brazilian artichoke. It’s native to the Americas, so it must have been Italian settlers that gave it that name, which then travelled back to Europe. Incidentally, in Russian we call it “topinambur” too.