Nutty Nomenclature

Have you ever wondered why walnuts have surfaces with ridges and grooves whereas almost all other nuts are smooth? Pecans have rows of ridges, but hazel nuts, cashews, brazil nuts, almonds, macademia nuts and pistachios are all smooth, even though they may vary in size and degree of roundness. I haven’t figured out the answer to this yet, but thinking about it led me to wonder about nut names. Just can’t help that linguistic curiosity!

Nuts are sometimes named for locales or for a person bearing some association with them. The word nut itself is straightforward, derived from Old English hnutu (hard seed) and related to other IE forms, e.g., German nuss, French noix, Latin nux.

For nut names belonging in the locale camp there is the rather self-evident brazil nut which grows on a tree by the same name in the Brazilian rain forest. (The biggest exporter of brazil nuts turns out to be Bolivia, not Brazil.)

The hazelnut was a familiar nut to the Germanic peoples, the Old English name is haeselhnutu. The alternate name for a hazelnut — filbert — comes from association with St. Philbert from the 7th century,  whose feast day was close to the time of year when the hazelnuts were ripe.  Hazel appears to be an ancient tree name with origins in IE *koselos, descendant Germanic *khasalaz, and related to German hasel,  Danish hassel and Dutch hazel.

Walnut is interestingly in the locale camp: the Old English word is walhnutu (foreign nut), a combination of wealh (foreign) + hnutu (nut). Walnuts came from more southern regions of Europe and were viewed in contrast to the local hazelnuts. Wealh/Wahl literally referred to people of the Celtic region, but the word eventually expanded in reference to include Romans — non-Germanic foreigners.  In later times (18th century?) a variety of walnut was referred to as a butternut, presumably because of the lighter coloring of the nut.

The macademia nut is named for John Macadam, the colleague of Ferdinand von Mueller, the botanist who first described the genus of this plant. (Gosh, wouldn’t you love your botanist friend to name his/her newly-classified nut after you?  Personally I’d be thrilled.) But, in the English-speaking world, the nut also sides with locale when going by the names Queensland nut or Bush nut.

Moving on to pecans, the word pecan originally comes from Algonquian languages and means ‘nut’; French borrowed it as pacane and English took it from the French. It turns out pecan trees are a type of hickory, but not all hickories are pecans, and there are hickory nuts which have much harder shells than do pecans, but are said to be quite tasty nuts.  Taking into account the names  hickory nut and pine nut, it appears nut is now highly productive as a combination form.  Chestnut is another example of a place name, chestun, being combined with nut; O.E. chestun derived from O.F. chastaine and Latin castanea which derived from earlier Greek kastanéā which meant either ‘nut from Castanea’ (Pontus, Asia Minor) or ‘nut from Castana’ (Thessaly, Greece).

The origins of almond can be traced to the Greek word amygdalos (almond tree); the origins of the Greek word may be Semitic.  The l in almond was introduced in French, (reasons vary as to why this was so) and English took the word from French before the French ditched the l to form modern-day amande. English re-borrowed Latin amygdala in more recent times: this term has acquired an anatomical meaning — twin almond-shaped gray masses deep within each hemisphere of the brain that are associated with the ability to smell.

Cashew is taken from Portuguese acajú (18th century) which in turn the Portuguese took from the Brazilian-based Tupi indigenous people who named the tree acajuba in their own language.

And what of peanuts? They’re legumes, not really nuts at all.  They are related to pigeon peas to the extent that both are legumes. This may bear on the name; before the early 19th century, peanuts were referred to as groundnuts or ground peas, presumably because the peanuts actually mature under the ground. Perhaps the prevalence of nut as a combining form by the 19th century made it natural to coin the word peanut? I am a little curious as to why groundnut didn’t prevail though, having already been established. Probably an interesting story lurking there that involves pigeon peas. 🙂

And, I’m still curious as to why walnuts are so gnarly compared with all the others!

This entry was posted in etymology, history of language, names, Word Usage and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Nutty Nomenclature

  1. bbear says:

    When I saw the name Macadam among your nut etymologies I wondered if it might be he of the eponymous road-surface, a word still in common use when I was young. It’s not: 18th Century vs 19th, and there’s a site called ‘Macadam, MacAdam and McAdam … and tarmac and Macadamia’ with the whole interminable story at:

    • achouston says:

      Hi BBear! Lots of guys with closely-related names there! The nut post was about English names, but of course, macademia nuts had indigenous names well before they were ever known to speakers of English — gyndl, jindilli and boombera were names used by native Australians (according to Wikipedia). Ann

  2. Pingback: Hazel Close, Salisbury « Salisbury and Stonehenge

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