Veg Power

‘Eat largely of spinach.’

recommended John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, in his best-selling 1747 Primitive Physick: An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases.1


‘What a pleasure to write about my favourite vegetable!’ I thought when asked to write this piece.

I don’t recall when I first got to like it. I didn’t eat it as a child. As a Marmite vegetable, it’s one children will easily ‘yuck’ at.

The ovate leaves if eaten as salad lack a truly standout taste. Once cooked, though, spinach soars to a different plane. It possesses a density and depth of taste – not to mention colour and aroma – that force your taste buds to stand to attention and take notice. In fact, the flavour is highly umami. (Do let me use umami adjectivally like this, please.)

Is this veggie your friend or foe?

If your foe, it’s really not for me to say you ought to make friends with it for its supercalifraglisticexpialidocious health benefits. Popeye wasn’t the only person to enjoy that health-giving cornucopia of vitamins, iron, folic acid, and so forth. Spinach’s health benefits have been noted since the seventeenth century, as the Wesley quotation illustrates.

I note with raised eyebrow that the Cobuild definition suggests ‘you chop up and boil [it] in water before eating.’ Yup, boiling it allows our innards to more easily absorb some of the minerals spinach is laden with but could also reduce it to an evil-looking pap.

IMHO, that’s no way to treat what the Arabs called ‘the prince of vegetables’. That doyenne of British home cooking, Delia Smith, agrees (‘Spinach … needs no water at all for cooking’) and recommends cooking it in butter for all of 30 seconds. I do it that way or briefly steam it.

You might not have noticed that that Cobuild definition labels spinach an ‘uncountable’ noun. What does that mean? Well, like milk, bread, cheese and so forth, when referring to quantity you talk about some spinach, not ?a spinach. After all, you can’t usually count ‘one spinaches, two spinaches, three spinaches’ and so on, can you? One leaf of spinach won’t get you very far nutritionally speaking, and its ‘uncountability’ in English is echoed by its plural status on menus in French, Spanish and Italian, les épinards, las espinacas and gli spinaci, respectively.

Eating the world

When we eat vegetables, in one sense we are ‘eating the world’. In an etymological, not an ecological, sense, because the words for many vegetables we routinely eat nowadays are (more or less) exotic imports from other languages, aka loanwords.2 The vegetable words featured this week in Collins Word of the Day illustrate this beautifully, coming as they do from Italian, (zucchini, finocchio), Japanese (mibuna), German (kohlrabi) and an indigenous Brazilian language (choko).  

The history of spinach as word and plant is also rather exotic.

Its production seems to have started first in Persia, from where it was exported to China (currently the world’s largest producer), where it is known as bō cài (菠菜), the ‘Persian vegetable’. The King of Nepal considered it fine enough to serve as a suitable gift to the Chinese Emperor in ad 647.

The Persian was isfānāj or aspanākh, borrowed by the Arabs as isfānākh. For the Arabs, as mentioned, it was the ‘prince of vegetables’ and so the Moors introduced it to Spain, where it became espinaca. Thence the word and the crop travelled to France as espinach(e) which is one form in which English snaffled it. Another form was spinnage and variants ending in –age, which is still echoed in the pronunciation /ˈspɪnɪdʒ/ as opposed to /ˈspɪnɪtʃ/. 

Other food words that come (ultimately) from Persian are pilau, kulfi, orange and, according to some authorities, aubergine (eggplant).  

Aubergine has an intriguing gastronomic and gastric history. It seems to have started as the ‘anti-fart’ vegetable in Sanskrit, vatin-ganah, on the basis that it didn’t produce wind. (Bear in mind that in yoga there is a ‘wind-releasing’ pose, apanasana, in Sanskrit, so the taboo in English against naming bodily functions does not apply.)  

The word then passed into Persian as bādingān and out again into Arabic, with the Arabic article al, ‘the’, added to produce albādhinjān. The next stop was Catalan alberginia, which the French borrowed as aubergine. Meanwhile, the Portuguese had produced the variant berinjela, which was loaned back to Indian languages in the form brinjal, which you might see on an Indian restaurant menu in the dish brinjal bhaji, aubergine curry.

‘England and America are two countries separated by the same language.’

Talk of aubergine raises in microcosm the multiple differences between American and British English. The quote above, or variants of it, on the topic is attributed to George Bernard Shaw. The vegetable field is fertile with examples.

The list below shows the US version and then the British, followed by the origin of each word. ‘Origin’ here means the language from which English immediately borrowed it rather than where the word may first have originated.

endive / chicoryOld French x 2
zucchini / courgetteItalian / French 
cilantro / corianderSpanish / Old French
eggplant / aubergine English / French
rutabaga / swede  Swedish / English
arugulaItalian dialect / French

The name swede for the vegetable comes from Swede for a Swedish person; the vegetable was introduced into Scotland from Sweden in 1791–1792. Rocket the vegetable is still occasionally spelled roquette.

Finally, vegetable words often stand for other things, just as ‘use your nut’ means ‘use your head’ in British English. In New Zealand English, swede also can refer to your head. In Italian, zucca, ‘pumpkin; marrow’, is used similarly.

Latin, too, made use of vegetable metaphors. Cucumbers, melons and watermelons, among other fruit and veg, are cucurbitaceous, that is, they belong to the botanical family Cucurbitaceae. Cucurbita in Latin means ‘a gourd’ or colloquially, in Petronius, ’a blockhead’ or ‘a pumpkin-head’, according to which translation you read.  

1. ‘For the avoidance of doubt’, as the lawyers say, Wesley was using largely in its archaic sense of ‘copiously, abundantly’. Therefore, he meant ‘eat a lot of spinach’ not ‘eat mostly spinach.’

2. It never ceases to amuse me that the word loanword is itself a loan translation of the German Lehnwort.

By Jeremy Butterfield
Jeremy Butterfield is the former Editor-in-Chief of Collins Dictionaries, and editor of the fourth, revised edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.

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