The Geography of “Cucumber”

Oct 1, 2014 by


Several of my earlier posts examined the history and geography of culinary vocabulary, particularly words for ‘cheese’, ‘onion’, and ‘tea’. It has become clear that the distribution of such words in European languages tells a story of both common descent and borrowing. The role of borrowing is nowhere clearer than in the map of the words for ‘tea’. But while borrowing must have also complicated the patterns of ‘onion’ and ‘cheese’ vocabulary, major Indo-European subfamilies typically share the same root. For example, while the Romance languages generally inherited the Latin word for ‘onion’, cepa or its diminutive form cepolla, French uses a different word, which has also been borrowed into some, though not all, Germanic languages. Scandinavian (North Germanic) languages preserve the original Germanic root løk, which was also borrowed by Slavic languages, though some of them later replaced it with Latin loanwords. But a completely different picture emerges if we examine words for ‘cucumber’ (see map on the left). Here, areal patterns are more conspicuous than those of language-family relationships.

The cucumber itself originated in India, and has been cultivated for at least 3,000 years. The plant was known in the Middle East since antiquity: the legend of Gilgamesh describes people eating cucumbers. The first Europeans to taste its green fruit were probably the Greeks, who called it síkyon. The Romans were fond of it too; Pliny the Elder described nine types of remedies made from cultivated cucumbers—and nearly 30 more from the wild variety—which were used to cure a range of ailments from scorpion bites to bad eyesight, and from mice infestation to infertility. Records of cucumber cultivation appear in France in the 9th century, England in the 14th century, and in North America by the mid-16th century. The Spaniards brought cucumbers to Haiti in 1494. In 1535, Jacques Cartier, a French explorer, found “very great cucumbers” grown on the site of what is now Montreal.

Just as the Greeks was the first to cultivate cucumbers in Europe, they were also the ones to supply the most common European linguistic root: angoúri. According to Vasmer’s etymological dictionary, this term goes back to the Ancient Greek root meaning ‘unripe’: cucumbers are eaten in an immature state, unlike the closely related  muskmelons, pepón in Greek, which are eaten when fully ripe. In addition to Greece, this root appears throughout most of Central, Eastern, and Northern Europe. Since the Greek root has a nasal vowel rather than /n/, many languages that borrowed the root, dropped the nasal. In most cases, another velar is added at the end of the root, for example, in the Polish ogórek, the Lithuanian agurkas, or the Swedish gurka. In Russian this velar sound has been palatalized to /ts/: ogurec. In several languages the velar stop /g/ has undergone lenition and became /h/: Belarusian ahurok, Slovak uhorka; in Hungarian it has become a /b/ in uborka.

A different root is used in the languages of the Balkans, with the exception of Greek, found in Slavic languages such as Bulgarian krastavitsa and Croatian krastavac, as well as in Romance languages such as Romanian castravete and Vlach castravet. Neither Germanic nor Romance languages exhibit unity with respect to their ‘cucumber’ words. While languages in the North Germanic grouping are uniform in using variations on the Greek theme, West Germanic languages use a variety of roots: German, like Scandinavian languages, uses gurke, while English, Dutch, Frisian go for a cucumber-related form. The Celtic languages of both Britain and France (as well as Irish) share the cucumber-root with English and French.


Languages in the Romance family use four different ‘cucumber’ roots, reproducing roughly the four-way distinction into Balkan Romance (which, as mentioned above, use the root commonly found in the Balkans), Italo-Romance (which use forms related to the Italian cetriolo), Ibero-Romance (which use forms related to the Spanish pepino), and Gallo-Romance (which use words related to the French concombre, which served as the source of the English cucumber). However, the correlation between the internal classification of Romance languages and the roots for ‘cucumber’ is far from perfect. Sardinian, the first language to separate from the Romance fold, uses the cucumber-root found in the Anglo-French world. Corsican too uses the same root, despite belonging to the Italo-Romance branch, as does Galician, which belongs to the Ibero-Romance branch. (Another Romance language to use the cucumber-root, Catalan, is actually more closely related to Gallo-Romance, including French, than to Ibero-Romance, despite its location on the Iberian Peninsula.)

North Africa and the Middle East feature forms like the Arabic xiyar, Turkish hiyar, and Kurdish xiyar, which are clearly related, even though the three languages belong to three different language families: Semitic, Turkic, and Indo-Iranian (a branch of Indo-European). Related forms are also found in other Turkic languages, such as Tatar and Bashkort. As elsewhere, these forms exhibit areal rather than phylogenetic patterns. For example, Udmurt, a Finno-Ugric language spoken in the central Volga region not far from Bashkort, uses both kiyar and ogreč (related to the Russian ogurec), rather than a form closer to the Finnish kurkku or Estonian kurk. Other Finnic languages spoken in European Russia, such as Erzya and Moksha, also have a Turkic-related form.

The word for ‘cucumber’ in Hebrew, another Semitic language, is melafefon. It is clearly not related to the Arabic xiyar, but I do not know its etymology. This word is found in the expression onat melafefonim (literally ‘cucumber season’) meaning ‘off-season’ and used especially in popular media and sport. This idiom is a calque from German die Saure-Gurken-Zeit literally ‘the time of sour cucumbers’ (via Yiddish, I imagine). Apparently, it originally referred to the low hunting season, when hunters often had to be satisfied by pickled vegetables.



And speaking of pickles, they play an important role as a chaser in many cultures, including in Russia: there are several monuments to the cucumber (most of them, actually, to the pickle) across Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Examples include one in Belgorod, depicting a pickle on a fork, and one in the town of Lukhovicy, depicting a huge, rocket-like pickle on top of a barrel that bears an inscription “To Cucumber the Provider from the grateful residents of Lukhovicy”.






Finally, it is noteworthy that the Armenian cucumber is not a cumber at all (defined as varieties of the species Cucumis sativus) but rather a non-sweet muskmelon (defined as varieties of the species Cucumis melo). As is true in other muskmelons, the seeds of the Armenian cucumber are located in a central core, separate from the edible flesh.



Previous Post
| Next Post

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: