Wednesday, October 1, 2008


We probably had the last fresh whole watermelon of the summer a few weeks ago. The crate of large globular produce at the supermarket is now full of pumpkins. But the Summer 2008 issue of Edible Boston, a franchised locavore magazine, just showed up there. Either that, or we just noticed it. It contains an article on watermelon by Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely, who edits the newsletter of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe-Harvard, home to an important collection of vegetarian cookbooks and where CHB meets. She has also written for Gastronomica (e.g., here).

The article makes the following observation directly relevant to this blog:

The name for a plant can often point the way to its starting point, its root, but the words for watermelon in many languages do not relate to each other. In French (pastèque), Italian (cocomero), Spanish (sandia), and Portuguese (melancia). There is no etymological tie between these Romance words. Going further afield and back, the words for watermelon in ancient languages—Greek (karpouxzi), Hebrew (avatiah), Arabic (batfikh), Persian (hinduwana), and Tamil (palam)—have no cognates. This all shows the watermelon’s prehistoric dissemination.
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I am not sure how much can be inferred from a lack of cognates. When several daughter languages have related forms, that can indicate that a reconstructed parent had one, too. When a word is borrowed, it suggests the possibility that the object was new. But existing words can also be repurposed, as with African peanut words. And cognates can diverge as different branches encounter different material.

The diversity above is primarily in the greater Mediterranean. In contrast, most Germanic languages have words exactly equivalent to the transparent English watermelon: Dutch watermeloen, German Wassermelone, Swedish vattenmelon, Danish vandmeloner, Icelandic vatnsmelóna. This idea also extends to some neighbors, such as Czech vodní meloun.

Finnish and Estonian likewise have vesimeloni and vesimelon, but also arbuusi and arbuus from their other neighbors: Russian арбуз, Lithuanian: arbūzas, Polish: arbuz. This is from Turkish karpuz, as are Greek καρπούζι (I'm not sure where the x comes from above) and Romany harbuz. This in turn is from Persian خربوزه xarbuza, literally 'donkey cucumber'. The modern Persian word هندوانه hinduwāna indicates that watermelon comes from India. But the Hindi तरबूज tarabūja (also तरबूज़ tarabūza), Sanskrit तरम्बुज tarambuja is borrowed from Persian تربوز tarbuz. And Sanskrit खर्बूज kharabūja is from that same خربوزه xarbuza.

Watermelon (Citrullus lanatus — for a full name citation, see this note) appears to originate in southern Africa. Livingstone found them growing abundantly in the Kalahari:

But the most surprising plant of the Desert is the “Kengwe or Kēme” (Cucumis caffer), the watermelon. In years when more than the usual quantity of rain falls, vast tracts of the country are literally covered with these melons; this was the case annually when the fall of rain was greater than it is now, and the Bakwains sent trading parties every year to the lake. It happens commonly once every ten or eleven years, and for the last three times its occurrence has coincided with an extraordinarily wet season. … These melons are not, however, all of them eatable; some are sweet, and others so bitter that the whole are named by the Boers the “bitter watermelon.” The natives select them by striking one melon after another with a hatchet, and applying the tongue to the gashes. They thus readily distinguish between the bitter and sweet. The bitter are deleterious, but the sweet are quite wholesome. (p. 54)

The bitter form is Citrullus colocynthis, or a natural hybrid of it and watermelon.

The watermelon was known to the Ancient Egyptians. It is illustrated in paintings. (I cannot find a good image online: there is a drawing in An Ancient Egyptian Herbal, but the page is not available in preview; and in “Die Pflanzen des alten Ägyptens,” here in the Internet Archive, Fig. 30-32 in Table III—image 167 of 1190 in the PDF, which can only be reached by going to a nearby numbered page and moving forward or backward—but even the color scan does not pick up the thin lines very solidly; and there are what are assumed to be melons among the foods illustrated in Lepsius' Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien, II, plates 67-68.) Seeds have been found preserved in tombs. This presents a bit of a mystery, since at the time of the early cultivation in Egypt, the start of the 2nd millennium BCE, as far as archeologists can tell, no farming was yet practiced in south-west Africa, where the wild relatives of watermelon and colocynth are found, and so the most likely candidate for the origin of its domestication.

The word b-d:d-w-kA*M2:D52 bddw-k3, which occurs in several medical papyri, is believed to refer to watermelon. For instance, a simple remedy in the Berlin Medical Papyrus 3038 (#111, transcription, facsimile, translation):

k:t b-d:d-M2-Z3-kA:D52-E1-Z3 i-r:p-W-W23-Z3 s-wr:r-i-N35A-A2

kt bddw-k3 jrp zwr.jn

ditto [a remedy to expel a disease caused by a demon]: watermelon; wine; drink.

The same word occurs a couple more times there in procedures related to fertility (#193-194, index, transcription, facsimile, translation). In Coptic, the word becomes ⲃⲉⲧⲩⲕⲉ (at least according to Budge; it isn't in Crum).

The Israelites' complaint about the foods they missed from Egypt in Numbers 11:5 (encountered in an earlier post for garlic) includes אֲבַטִּיחִ ’ăḇaṭṭiḥ 'watermelon'. This is presumably cognate, as is Arabic بَطِّيخ baṭṭīḫ (I assume the f in the article is a typo). From the Arabic come Spanish budieca, Portuguese pateca and French pateque, the modern French pastèque.

The traditional history is that watermelon was unknown to the Greeks and Romans until the beginning of the Common Era, since there is no readily identifiable Ancient Greek word for it (for example, de Candolle, translation; and so more modern food histories). This is somewhat at variance with its prevalence in Egypt. A reasonable case, though not conclusive, can be made for pushing it back several centuries, as follows. (For more details, see the paper by Alfred C. Andrews of the University of Miami in JSTOR). The word πέπων as an adjective meant 'ripe'. Combined with σίκυος 'cucumber', it named some kind of fruit that was only eaten when ripe. This was then shorted to πέπων as a noun. For instance, [pseudo-]Hippocrates describes σίκυος πέπων (De affect., 57) and contrasts σίκυοι ὠμοὶ 'raw cucumber' with πέπονες (De diaeta, 2.55). The Septuagint, in translating the passage in Numbers cited above, uses καὶ τοὺς σικύας καὶ τοὺς πέπονας 'cucumbers and melons'. μηλοπέπων 'melon-apple', or perhaps 'sweet-melon', was then used for regular melons. So that πέπων would likely have been 'watermelon'. The Romans viewed all the Cucurbitaceae as some kind of cucumis 'cucumber'. So, of pepo and melopepo, Pliny wrote:

cum magnitudine excessere, pepones vocantur. (Nat. Hist., 19, 5, 23, § 65)

When they [cucumbers] exceed a certain size, they are called “pepo.”

ecce cum maxime nova forma eorum in campania provenit mali cotonei effigie. forte primo natum ita audio unum, mox semine ex illo genus factum, melopeponas vocant. (ibid., § 67)

behold a wholly new form of them [cucumbers] has arisen in Campania with the form of a quince. I hear that the first one was born that way by accident, and then the type was made from the seed of that one; they call it “melopepo.”

Likewise the Vulgate for Numbers has cucumeres et pepones. So, while Lewis and Short, s.v. pepo, have, “a species of large melon, a pumpkin,” the Oxford Latin Dictionary, s.v. pepon, has, “a water-melon or other gourd.” Melopepo was shorted to just melo, from which many European words, including English melon, are derived. (This same development was related from a slightly different perspective in the earlier squash post.)

Italian developed a couple of new words for watermelon: Tuscan cocomero, derived in some way from cucumis; and Northern anguria, apparently from the Byzantine Greek ἀγγούριον 'cucumber'. This may be related to Arabic عَجُورْ ʿaǧūr, according to Forskål Cucumis chate, but according to Lane, “a species of melon.” Lane derives the Arabic from the Greek and furthermore glosses both ἀγγούριον and Modern Greek ἀγγοῦρι 'water-melon', not 'cucumber'; anguria can also evidently mean a kind of cucumber. Also from the Greek are Slavic words like Polish ogórek and Czech okurka 'cucumber'; from the Slavic comes the German Gurke; and from some Germanic language the English gherkin.

The Romance languages were not immune to the Northern water-melon: for example, Italian melone ad acqua or French melon d'eau. Thus Louis Reybaud, writing of Napoleon's men in Egypt:

Il fallut se passer de pain et de viande. Pour y suppléer on avait du riz, des lentilles, et surtout un melon d'eau commun sur les rives du Nil, et connu dans nos provinces méridionales sous le nom de pastèque. Ce fruit, plus rafraîchissant que substantiel, consola nos troupes dans leur marche pénible; il devint pour les soldats l'objet d'un culte singulier; dans leur reconnaissance ils le nommaient sainte pastèque. (Hist. scien. Ég., vol III, p. 183)

Bread and meat ran out. To supplement them, they had rice, lentils, and especially a water-melon common on the banks of the Nile, and known in our southern provinces under the name pastèque. This fruit, more refreshing than substantial, consoled our troops on their painful march; it became for the soldiers the object of a singular cult; in their gratitude they named it holy watermelon.

On sainte pastèque, one of the generals adds, “à l'example des anciens Égyptiens,” 'following the example of the Ancient Egyptians' (Mém. de Nap., p. 71).

The Spanish and Galician sandía come from Iberian Arabic *sandíyya, Classical Arabic سِنْدِية sindiyyah, meaning that the fruit comes from Sindh. The Catalan síndria perhaps shows the additional influence of cídria 'citron'.

The Portuguese melancia was balancia in the 16th century, of unknown origin, and began to show up as melancia in the 17th, presumably under the influence of melão 'melon'.

The physical descriptions in the botanical descriptions through the age of the great herbals to modern natural history already shows watermelon's variety of shapes, sizes and pulp and seed colors:

  • Albertus Magnus: pepo viridis plani corticis 'a green melon with a flat rind'.
  • Fuchs: fructũ rotundũ, herbacei coloris, & in eo ſemina lata, & colore ſpadicea, hoc est, in rufo atra 'round fruit, grass-colored, inside flat chestnut-brown seeds, that is, black in red'.
  • Garcia de Orta (See also Coloquios 36): prægrande & rotundum, oblongius tamen aliquantulum, formaque quodammodo ouali 'very large and round, though somewhat more oblong, and in a way oval shaped'.
  • Mattioli (illustration and comparison with true melons).
  • Camerarius: (shape) subrotundos 'roundish';
     Cortice læui, herbaceo colore, maculoſo tamen 'smooth rind, grass-colored, but spotted';
     (seed) rufo, nigróve putamine 'with a red or black husk'.
  • Dalechamp (Ir a 637): (shape) rotundum 'round';
     (color) herbaceo, maculoſo 'grass-colored, spotted';
     (seed) nigrum, in aliis rubrũ 'black, in others red'.
  • C. Bauhin, Phytopinax: Variat colore corticis qui alijs virens, alijs maculoſus, ſubcandidis maculis. Caro alijs rubens & dulcior, alijs candida: Semina colore nigro, aut rubro, aut fuluo; rariùs ſine ſemine reperitur. 'It varies in rind color, with some green, others spotted, with somewhat white spots. The flesh is in some red and sweeter, others white. The seeds are black in color, or red, or yellow; rarely it is found without seeds.'
  • C. Bauhin, Pinax (similarly).
  • Gerarde: “the fruite is ſomewhat rounde, ſtreaked or ribbed with certaine deepe furrowes alongſt the ſame, of a greene colour aboue, and vnderneath on that ſide that lieth vpon the grounde ſomewhat white: the outwarde ſkin whereof is very ſmooth; the meate within is indifferent harde, more like to that of the Pompion then of the Cucumber or muſke Melon: the pulpe wherein the ſeede lieth, is ſpungie and of a ſlimie ſubſtance: the ſeede is long, flat, and greater then thoſe of the Cucumbers: the ſhell or outward barke is blackiſh, ſometimes of an  ouerworne reddiſh colour.”
  • Marcgrave: fructus rotundus ſeu globoſus vel etiam ellypticus cortice viridi, magnitudine capitis humani, aut paulo major vel minor; carnem habet albam & in medio rubram (nimirum ubi ſemina jacent) ſeu ſanguineam ſucculentiſſimam, boni ſaporis 'the fruit is round or globular or even elliptical, with green rind, as large as a man's head, sometimes larger, sometimes smaller; it has white flesh and red in the middle (around where the seeds are scattered) or a very succulent blood-red, of good taste';
     (seed) in quibuſdam coracini, in aliis ruffi coloris 'in some raven-colored, in others reddish'.
  • J. Bauhin: (size) capitis humani magnitudiné equans 'equal in size to a human head';
     (seed) colore buxeo obscuriore 'dark boxwood color'.
  • Josselyn: “the fleſh of it is of a fleſh colour.”
  • Chabrey (Ir a 140): (flesh) alba 'white'.
  • Ray (summarizes others).
  • Sloane: Variat substantiâ sive pulpâ rubrâ vel albâ; huic semina sunt nigra illi rubra. 'Varies in the contents with either red or white pulp; these seeds are black, those red.'
  • Bryant: “varies very much in the ſize, ſhape, and colour of both its fruit and the ſeeds; the latter are black in ſome, red in others, and the fleſh yellow or red.”
  • Lourerio: (shape) rotundum, vel oblongum sesquipedale 'round or a foot-and-half oblong';
     (color) ruberrimum, aliquando pallidum 'reddish, sometimes pale';
     (seed) nigris, vel rufis 'black or red'.
  • Linnaeus.
  • Thunberg (fuller description): lanato 'woolly'.

Some very strict vegetarians in India (both Jain and Brahmin) must avoid foods that resemble meat in appearance, such as beets or tomatoes. And so, those watermelons, “of a flesh color,” are forbidden. (For instance, p. xvi of Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking; or this review of a different book from the same year, and so perhaps copying it; or the comments to this blog post.)

Another set of Indian watermelon words is Sanskrit कालिन्दकं kālindaka, Hindi कलिंदा kalindā, Marathi काळिंगण kāḷiṅgaṇa, and so on.

The Tamil பலம் palam properly means a green fruit (or edible root) in general. I have no doubt that it sometimes means 'watermelon', but a more common name appears to be கொம்மட்டி kommaṭṭi, with many Dravidian cognates. (Both words together are given by this Malaysian exporter.) Dictionaries also list வத்தாக்கு vattākku, derived from Portuguese pateca, and so cognate with the French, Hebrew and Arabic. பலம் palam itself is borrowed from Sanskrit फल phala 'fruit', but also 'result; consequence', the associated verb meaning 'bear fruit' or 'burst open', ultimately from the same root as English split.

According the Laufer, the first mention of watermelon, 西瓜 xi1gua1 'Western melon', by the Chinese is in the 10th century diary of 胡嶠 Hu2 Jiao4 in the History of the Five Dynasties (五代史 Wu3 Dai4 Shi3):

遂入平川,多草木,始食西瓜,云契丹破回紇得此種,以牛糞覆棚而種,大如中國冬瓜而味甘。(chap. 73)

sui4 ru4 Ping2chuan1, duo1 cao3 mu4, shi3 shi2 xi1gua1, yun2 Qi4dan1 po4 Hui2he2 de0 ci3 zhong3, yi3 niu2 fen4 fu4 peng2 er2 zhong4, da4 ru2 Zhong1guo2 dong1gua1 er2 wei4 gan1.

As soon as I arrived at Pingchuan, I found many plants and trees, and first ate watermelon, the Khitan say that after defeating the Uigur they obtained this plant. They cover it with ox dung and and mats to grow it. It is as big as the Chinese winter melon and tastes sweet.

Watermelons were reported in New England in 1629 by Master Graves, Engineer:

In the mean time wee abound with such things which next under God doe make us subsist: as fish, foule, deere, and sundrie sorts of fruits, as musk-millions, water-millions, Indian pompions, Indian pease, beanes, and many other odde fruits that I cannot name. (The usually cited source, Mass. Hist. Soc. Coll. 1:124. 1806, is only a snippet, but the letter is thankfully reproduced elsewhere.)

The odd spelling water-million, not surprising for the 17th century, is listed in Bartlett's Americanisms and continues to pop up in eye-dialect, much of which is cringe inducing today.

Back in Europe, the Ukrainian кавун, from Arabic قاوُون qāwūn 'muskmelon' by way of Turkish kavun, also yields Polish kawon.

The Bulgarian любеница and Slovenian, Serbian and Croatian lubenica appear to be related to lùbina 'skull', from the root *leubh concerned with peeling. This discussion covers four Serbian / Croatian / Bosnian words for watermelon, adding bostan, from Turkish bostan 'vegetable garden; melon field; [water-]melon', from Persian بستان bustān 'garden for flowers or sweet-smelling fruits' (as opposed to باغ bāgh for a regular fruit garden) < بو bo + ستان stān 'fragrance place'.

And rounding out this area of diverse watermelon words are a couple simple ones: Romanian pepene verde 'green melon' and Hungarian görögdinnye 'Greek melon'. (See also M.M.P.N.D.)


mondain said...

雲 in ``雲契丹破回紇得此種" should be 云, because it means ``to say" instead of ``cloud".

MMcM said...

Oh, yes, thank you. Perhaps the page I cribbed off of was reconstructed from simplified characters, which aren't reliably reversible in cases like that.

Sylvia said...

Hi, I'm working on a book on the history of melons and was very interested in your work here -- and would love to talk to you about it. E-mail me at Thanks! Sylvia

Alessandro Riolo said...

What about the Calabrese "zipangulu"?

I read claims it may come from "ξίφος" (a kind of sword, in the sense of being similar to a small sword, possibly a reference to a cylindrical variety, perhaps the related cucumber?) or "καρπούζι" (I have to admit I can't understand how).

Interestingly, "zipangulu" seems also what would have probably been "japanese" in medieval Sicilian, although I suspect that may be a false cognate: the area of Calabria where the watermelon is called "zipangulu", albeit currently "Sicilian", was until comparatively recently almost completely hellenophone.

Another "Sicilian" word for watermelon is the Salentine "sarginiscu" (no idea where that may come from, perhaps akin to Saracen?), albeit in Sicily proper the most commonly used term is the perfect calque of watermelon (or viceversa?), "miluni r'acqua" (or "muluni r'acqua"), versus the "miluni ri ciauru" (fragrant melon, the yellow out white in melon) or the "miluni di feddha" (the cantalupe, the green out orange in melon).

Afshin said...

Amazing article. Just one point about "kharabuze" and "hendevane" in Persian. "kharabuze" which consists of "khar" (meaning donkey or big here means big) + "buze" which means cucumber. So "kharbuze" in Persian means a big cucumber.

"Hendavane" in Persian consists of "Hend" (meaning "hind"/"India") and "avane" (a postfix meaning "from"/"related to").

In Persian "kharbuze" and "hendevane" are two different fruits.
"kharbuze" is a melon with green sweet tissue and two sided cone shape <>. So in Iran, "kharbuze" is different from other melons like the ball shapes ones which are called "tAlebi".

"Hendevane" is specially used for watermelon.

It seems that while "kharbuze" fruit origins from Persia but "hendavane" is imported to Persia through India.