The Spiky Berry

Especially for Martin

Who would have thought that such a tiny piece of fruit should have such linguistic contention behind it?! And yet the humble gooseberry has just that.

It seems that we simply can’t agree on the origin of the word, although several suggestions have been made.

gooseberrybetter

The first theory is that the “goose” part of the word is from either Dutch Kruisbes or German Krausbeere, both words from the same root. If this is the case, you may wonder why it should have lost the r sound. This could be through misplaced association with the animal, or just simply gradual corruption.

The same thought springs to mind when considering the second theory, that it comes from the French word for this berry family; groseille.

Moving on, we find the idea that it may have come from Middle German krus, meaning “curl”. This does conjure up a nice image of curly leaves, but there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason why we should accept this theory over the others – they all seem to have equal weight.

It falls to the Oxford English Dictionary to state that perhaps we are missing the obvious: why should it not have simply come from “goose” and “berry”. After all, various plants, fruits and vegetables have received all kinds of names associating them with animals, the reasons for which have been lost to time and seem totally random today. Why should this prove an exception? At this point, I feel it is time to note that the full French name for gooseberry is groseille à maquereau – the mackerel berry. And it is just as inexplicable to the French today, who are not in any particular habit of eating mackerel with gooseberry sauce, any more than people in the English-speaking world stuff geese with gooseberries. However, there is nothing to suggest that our culinary habits might not have changed since the word was coined, so who knows!

The Italian for gooseberry is uva-spina; “thorny-grape”. The Germans agree with this, calling it die Stachelbeere, which means “spiky berry”, while in Spanish we find grosella, from the same root as the French. Similarly, the Portuguese word is groselha, while Slovenian gives us kosmulja. The two parts of this word, kos and mulj would literally mean “piece of silt”, but it is not clear whether the name actually derives from them. From Russia comes kryzhovnik (крыжовник). The Welsh name, gwsberen, appears to have come from the English, but there is also the term eirinen Fair – “Mary’s plum”.

3 thoughts on “The Spiky Berry

  1. I suppose I should start off by confessing that I don’t actually like gooseberries which isn’t that surprising as I’m not particularly keen on rhubarb either both having that same tart, astringent taste. I grew up surrounded by farmland and fruit orchards in the countryside and remember picking gooseberries as a child which we also grew along with strawberries, apples, pears and plums.

    Breton for gooseberry (also currants) is
    spezad, spezadenn (singulative)
    which can be compared to Welsh ysbyddad, ysbyddaden (briars, hawthorn, thorn bush) Cornish spedhas, spedhasen (briars) and Irish spíonán (gooseberry; currant) and Scots Gaelic spìontag (gooseberry; currant) and Latin spīna (thorn, spine, prickle)

    The scientific name for gooseberry Ribes uva-crispa is a species of Ribes (which also includes the currants) has a subgenus species Ribes ‘grossularia’ a word which brings to mind the French word for (goose)berry groseille (à maquereau) and gooseberry in other languages:
    Scots Gaelic gròiseid
    Catalan grosella espinosa; agrassó
    Portuguese groselheira
    Cornish growsen, grows (collective)
    Welsh grwysen, grwyswydd, grwyswydden

    Grossularia is supposed to be from Latin grossulus the diminutive of grossus ‘an unripe, abortive fig’. So is this the origin of ‘gooseberry’ so called because its berries resemble little half-ripe figs?

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