Saturday, January 6, 2007


Another old LanguageHat post concerned Portobello, the large mushrooms that must be the savior of standard American chefs pressed to come up with a vegetarian dish, since they can almost be cooked and served like steaks.  The post pretty much left open the question of the word's origin.  Another open question of etymology, Pok-a-tok, got resolved by the September 2006 quarterly update to the OED.  Remembering this, I checked the December 2006 update and sure enough, they've got it.

Here is the new entry:

Brit. /ˌpɔːtəˈbɛləʊ/, U.S. /ˌpɔrdəˈbɛloʊ/  Forms: 19- portabella, 19- portabello, 19- portobello. [Perh. alteration of Italian pratarolo meadow mushroom.] 

    More fully portobello mushroom. A large brown variety of the common edible mushroom, having an open flat cap and a distinctive musky smell.

1990 Doylestown (Pennsylvania) Intelligencer 28 Oct. C12/3 Out of darkness now emerge the cream-colored and fuller flavoured crimani..the wild tasting portobello and the soft-for-soup oyster mushroom. 1998 Scotl. on Sunday (Nexis) 26 July 32 Before grilling, stuff meaty Portabello mushrooms with oil-soaked crumbs and grated Parmesan or crumbled goat's cheese. 2004 Phytochemistry 65 671/2 Tyrosinase, laccase, and peroxidase were detected in portabella mushrooms, a brown strain of Agaricus bisporus.

All we need to do is keep finding mysteries in alphabetical order starting in the middle of the alphabet.

I have to say that even though the earlier discussion did deal with how surprisingly recent this word is, I am amazed that the earliest quotation they could come up with is from 1990.  Of course, I don't have any documents at hand that show it earlier, so it must be one of those standard memory tricks.


the chocolate doctor מרת שאקאלאד said...

I think the name is recent because the mushroom itself is recent. I recall reading (I will have to track this down) that mushroom growers used to discard cremini mushrooms whose caps had opened up, until it turned out they could be sold as a premium item. Now some suppliers even market creminis, the original mushrooms, under the retronym "baby bellas."

Martyn Cornell said...

Five years late to this party, but …

The New York Times October 23, 1985, Wednesday, Late City Final Edition By NANCY HARMON JENKINS Section C; Page 1, Column 6; Living Desk

… A host of less common wild mushrooms can occasionally be found in specialty-food shops, among them … enormous Portobello mushrooms from Italy …

MMcM said...

Nice find. That's the beauty of the internet. The party never ends.

kts said...

That 1985 New York Times article was pointed out back in 2002 by Barry Popik on ADS-L. And the OED added the quote at some point — but oddly, they credit it to the Lawrence (Kansas) Daily Journal-World, 11 Dec., which must be a reprint of the NYT story.