This post is dedicated to Kelly.
A summer salad including cucumbers is a popular addition to the table, and it seems that this has long been the case; there are references to cucumbers in some of the earliest writing in English. Before you assume, however, that this means the word comes from Old English and a Germanic route, I should point out that there are references to the vegetable in early texts, but not necessarily under the same name.
Let’s start by taking a look at Middle English. We can find a small variety of forms, such as cucomer, cocumer, cucumerber, kikombre and also the familiar-looking cucumber. I have chosen this rather intriguing reference from 1440:
Tak brok grese..& þe leues of cucumerbers.
(Take badger fat and the leaves of cucumbers).
This has been taken from the Thornton Medical Book, a fifteenth century transcription by Yorkshire landowner Robert Thornton of earlier texts from London and Lincolnshire. You may be raising your eyebrows wondering what on earth the badger fat was for, and what he concoction was supposed to heal, but I am afraid I am going to disappoint you. Our interest in this instance is in the word for the cucumber.
The word came into English in the fourteenth century. As was the case with a large number of other words adopted at a smilar time, it came from Old French. The term in French was cocombre (which can be compared with Modern French concombre; similarly very little changed). Old French took the word from Latin cucumerem, which comes from the nominative form cucumis, meaning, guess what; ‘cucumber’. This Latin word is also the source of words in a number of other European languages, such as Italian cocomero, meaning ‘watermelon’, Spanish cohombro, which means ‘cucumber’, Portuguese and Spanish cogombro, also meaning ‘cucumber’.
We cannot trace the word any further into the past, except to say that it does not appear to have come from Proto-Indo-European, and may be from a Mediterranean language predating the Italic languages in the region.
Now, you will recall that I said that there is mention of cucumbers in some of the earliest texts in English. This of course means that they can be found before the fourteenth century and the advent of the word ‘cucumber’. In earlier forms of English, they are known by a different name. Let’s take a look.
Cúciíméres, ðæt synd eorþæppla
Cuciimeres, that are cucumbers.
This line comes from the Anglo-Saxon version of the Book of Numbers, dating to the ninth century. If you look carefully, you will notice that the English word used is eorþæppla, which literally means ‘earth-apples’. I rather like this term, and if you refer to the entry on apple, you will see that apple was a general word used for fruit and not just the specific fruit it is used for today.