I was inspired to research and write this by an article in The Miller’s Tale which I particularly enjoyed.
The quince may not be as well-known or as common in our society as the apple, but perhaps it is unfairly overlooked, as the Miller’s Tale article tells us in more detail.
But here our focus is on the word itself rather than the fruit. Where does this word come from?
It comes into English in the early 14th century. At that time there were many forms, such as coin, quoine, quin, coince, quoyn and even coven. The form quince was one version of the plural, but by no means the only one; coines, cones, and coinces could also be seen. In an age before the standardisation of spelling, these variations sometimes reflect the local dialect and pronunciation, and sometimes simply reflect the writer’s own interpretation of how the letters should be used.
We can find various references to the quince in Middle English: here is one from The Romaunt of the Rose, translated into English by Chaucer. It dates to around 1425.
Many homly trees ther were,
That peches, coynes, and apples beere.
The source for the Middle English word was Old French, in which the word was cooin. (Compare this with Modern French coing).
The word in Old French came from Vulgar Latin, from the term codoneum, a slightly altered version of the earlier Latin term cotoneum malum, which meant “quince apple” or “quince fruit”. The word for ‘apple’ was often extended in use to refer to other kinds of fruit.
Cotoneum malum most likely derived from cydonium malum, which in turn came from Greek: kydonia malon (κυδώνιον μάλον) or kydonion melon/ milon (κυδώνιον μήλον). This meant ‘apple of Kydonia’. You may very well be wondering what Kydonia is or was: the answer is simple. It was a city in ancient Crete, named for its mythical founder Kydon (Κύδων). It was located in what is modern Chania (Χανιά), and it was there that a variety of quince was grown that mainland Greeks regarded as superior: hence the adoption of the name.