Friday, July 14, 2006

Berry Good

Q. So, I'm walking through the produce section the other day, and I'm admiring the variety of berries available. Then it hits me: blueberry and blackberry make perfect sense, but boysen and straw? And what the heck is a cran?

A. Berry good; you were paying attention. I must admit that I never thought about this before, so it's been an education.

• Blueberry and blackberry, as you point out, are simply color descriptors.

• The cran- in cranberry comes from a German word meaning crane, the bird. My sources don't come up with a reason. Do cranes eat them? Does the bush resemble a crane perched in a marsh? Any grallatorial specialists out there who can help?

• The gooseberry is another puzzle. The Oxford English Dictionary leans towards the bird as a possible source, but there are twists and turns: “The grounds on which plants and fruits have received names associating them with animals are . . commonly inexplicable . . . .”

• The boysenberry gets its name from the American botanist, Rudolph Boysen.

• The straw- in strawberry refers to a straw after all. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it might be because the plant runners looked like straw, but it hedges by using the word conjecture.

• The raspberry may refer to its prickly, scratchy stems (as in rasp file).

• The huckleberry probably started as the hurtleberry (small balls).

• Lingonberry comes from the Swedish lingon, mountain cranberry.

A fruitful subject, indeed.

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