Language: Vocabulary: Word Origins

In the middle of the nineteenth century bands of adventurers organized in the United States were in Central America and the West Indies, stirring up revolutions.   Such an adventurer came to be known in English as a filibuster, from the Spanish filibustero. The word had originated in Dutch, as vrijbuiter. Its travels on the way from Dutch to Spanish are uncertain, but it is likely that the Spanish borrowed the word from the French, flibustier, fribustier, who apparently got it from the English flee-booter, freebooter.  George Sassoon writes: As a linguist, I am always interested in the origins of words, so found this most fascinating.  A recent discovery on this was when we were in Germany, visiting Klaus v. Zitzewitz.  I said that I did not know the origins of the Serbo-Croat word "krompir" for "potato".   At once, he produced a book on the potato which explained it as coming from the
low German Grundbeere, ground-berry.  The book also explained the high German word "Kartoffel", the "-offel" bit being Apfel, apple.  Of course, the potato being a recent introduction to Europe, every nation made up its own name for it, resulting in an astonishing variety of terms.  I think we already discussed its introduction to France,
by the apothecary Parmentier.  The peasants being very conservative and suspicious, he grew some on a patch outside Paris and put an armed guard on it by day, but withdrew the guards at night.  The peasants of course stole the "valuable" crop.  Then Parmentier had to persuade them to eat the tubers, not the poisonous tops.  Today,
recipes for potatoes often include the name Parmentier in memory of his contribution to gastronomy.

RH: When the turkey was introduced from America, the same variety of names arise as with the potato: turkey, dinde, perú,

When the potato was introduced to Europe from America, it was given a variety of names.  I said: When the turkey was introduced from America, the same variety of names arise as with the potato: turkey, dinde, perú.

George Sassoon comments: For completeness, the Serbo-Croat for "turkey" is "c'uran" (m.) or "c'urka" (f.), the "c" with the acute accent being pronounced more like "ty", so presumably derived from "turkey".  It is curious that with the heavy Turkish influence in the Balkans they ascribed the bird's origins  to that country.  In German it is a Truthahn, again of obscure origin.

RH: Yes but the English thought it came from Turkey; historians are puzzled by this. I am not only puzzled but indignant that this noble bird, once the pride of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula is now both eaten and scorned,  Why do evil tongues say for example "That play is a turkey". It is adding insult to injury. I believe it is an Americanism, unknown in the UK.  I am distressed by the way the British public has been insulting Tony Blair, but at least they respect the turkey.

Ronald Hilton 2005


last updated: June 8, 2005