Of Navy Beans and Haricot Beans

Gourmands beware: vegetables can go by many different names throughout the English-speaking world.

For instance, the North American vegetable "squash" takes its name from "askutasquash" (literally "green thing eaten raw") courtesy of the indigenous Naragansett Indians of the New England region. However, in the United Kingdom and in parts of the British Commonwealth, the vegetable is called a "marrow" (due to comparisons between the cooked flesh of the squash and bone marrow, although this hardly sounds terribly appetizing). To add to the confusion, the vegetable (or at least one variety) is called a "marrow squash," including in the USA.

French influences seem to be more evident in names of vegetables in British and some varieties of Commonwealth English (but not others). What North Americans and Australians call a "zucchini" (taken from the Italian) is called a "courgette" by Brits, the Irish, South Africans, and New Zealanders. What North Americans, New Zealanders, and Australians call "snow peas" are called by the Brits as "mangetout" (literally, "eat everything"!), although I have read that there is technically some difference between true snow peas and true mangetout peas.

Furthermore, what North Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders call an "eggplant" is called an "aubergine" by the Brits, "brinjal" (derived from Sankrit and Persian and also the distant root of "aubergine") by South Africans, Malaysians, and some Indians. In Trinidad, the vegetable is called a "meloongen" (a Latin derivative).

Beans appear to be especially vulnerable to variation across the Atlantic. "Navy beans" in the USA are called "haricot beans" (taken from the French word "haricot" for bean) in the UK. "Lima beans" in the USA are "butterbeans" to Brits, and "fava beans" in the States are "broad beans" in Blighty. Moreover, "stringbeans" in the USA are "runner beans" in Britain.

The term "corn" is rather interesting since, traditionally, in British English "corn" has meant nearly any type of grain, so the Brits have often called this vegetable (or grain, if you wish) "maize," descended from a Taino Indian (Caribbean) word by way of Spanish. Nowadays, the Brits and Irish seem to have largely supplanted "maize" with "sweetcorn," whereas Americans and most of the rest of the English-speaking world call the vegetable simply "corn." In South Africa, however, it is often called "mielie" (derived from the Portuguese word for corn: "milho").

There are some vegetables with acceptable alternates. What Brits call a "gherkin" (descended from Dutch and referring to the vegetable) is usually called a "pickle" (also derived from Dutch, but referring to the salty liquid in which the vegetable is pickled) by Americans, although "gherkin" is occasionally used in the United States. What Brits call "coriander" is generally called "cilantro" by Americans, although there appears to be some interchangeability (and some debate as to whether they are technically the same!), and the terms "garbanzo" (derived from old Spanish) and "chickpea" (with "chick" derived from the French word for the vegetable "pois chiche," descended in turn from Latin "cicer," the origin of the Roman name Cicero!) sometimes used interchangeably within various dialects of English, with Brits tending to prefer "chickpea."

And let's not forget the "avocado" (descended from the Spanish "aguacate"), which has been known colloquially in various regions as an "alligator pear," which is what the English in Jamaica first called it due to the avocado's rough skin!

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)


roxy said...

In the UK we have snow peas, tiny peas still in their pods (the pods are not eaten) and mange tout, where the pods are practically flat and the peas only just starting to form, where the whole thing is eaten. Otherwise spot on. I found your blog while reminding myself what Americans call haricot beans, for cooking purposes!

Margaret Larkin said...

Thanks for visiting!