or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Pamplemousse and Circumstance

A week ago I wrote about a word which was essentially the same in German and French, and not forty-eight hours later, I found another. (And then I immediately wrote this and promptly forgot about it and wrote something else for Sunday, even though this was right there on my desktop labelled "Sunday".) I bet there are thousands of such words! If there are, I'll have to stop getting so excited about them.

We were at the supermarket Saturday afternoon after my French class and in the produce section I started thinking about the word "grapefruit". I couldn't imagine where the word might have come from--more on that in a moment--but then I also started wondering where the French word could have come from. It's "le pamplemousse", and the second half looks like "mousse", or "foam", but how could that be part of a compound word for a big bitter-sweet yellow fruit? Not a clue.

Answers.com inadvertantly led me in the right direction. First, their page for grapefruit also listed another name for the fruit, "pomelo", which looks very like the French word, doesn't it? No, it doesn't, but it does sound very much like it. So heading over to pomelo told me that the word is an "alteration of 'pompelmous'", and there in the flesh is the French word, mashed around a little. Pompelmous, we are told, is from the Tamil "pampalimasu", influenced through the Dutch by "pompoen", "gourd", and Portuguese "limoes", "lemon". (Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, was a Dutch colony once upon a time, so it's no surprise that some Tamil words would have snuck into that language, and the seafaring Dutch also had a long history with the equally colonial Portuguese.)

So there's the French "pamplemousse" right there, via Dutch "pompelmous"; nothing to do with foam. And the German word? "Die Pampelmuse". (The French and German version of "grapefruit" have different genders: the French is masculine and the German is feminine. It isn't because, say, all fruit in German are feminine--their word for "apple" is masculine. The French word for apple, though, is feminine. There isn't any sense to this: there doesn't need to be, either, but it does make me glad that English dispensed with grammatical gender a long time ago.)

As for "grapefruit" in English, it's unquestionably a fruit, but it could hardly be less grape-like, in colour, size (of commonly-known fruits, only the watermelon is bigger), or taste. Answers.com suspects the name may have arisen because the grapefruit, like the grape, grows in clusters. It's as good an answer as any.


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