Tales of the Bogeyman and Spanish Bacon

Words for items associated with warmer climates are full of interesting etymologies. Words describing palm trees, coconuts, and cantaloupes are just a few of the linguistic curiosities that abound in tropical and subtropical regions.

The naming of "palm trees" and the "palm of the hand" is no coincidence. They both share the same Latin root: "palma." It is thought that the tree was named for the palm of the hand because the shape of the leaf formation was considered to resemble the fingers of a hand. So in Latin, the name for the part of the hand came first, followed by the tree. Interestingly, the reverse occurred in English as the two meanings of "palm" entered the language in very distinct ways and at different times:
The Latin word was borrowed into the Germanic dialects in prehistoric times in the tree sense, and now is wide spread (German palme and Dutch and Swedish palm as well as English palm). English acquired it in the 'hand' sense via Old French paume, with subsequent reversion to the Latin spelling.
Coconuts and coconut milk may be beloved for their taste, but the origin of the name could be the fodder for a creature feature film. The term "coco" is derived from the 16th-century word "coco" in Spanish and Portuguese, which meant "grin," "grimace" and even "scarecrow" or "bogeyman" (which it still means in some dialects of Spanish, Portuguese, and Galician). The word "coco," in turn, comes from a Latin expression for "skull." Supposedly the Portuguese explorers who encountered the fruit in India felt that the three-holed base of the shell resembled a human face, or rather that of the bogeyman.

The cantaloupe, a type of muskmelon is called a "spanspek" in South Africa by speakers of English and Afrikaans. "Spanspek" comes from the Afrikaans "spaanse spek," which means "Spanish bacon." The term goes back to the 19th century, when Sir Harry Smith served as Governor and High Commissioner of the Cape Colony in southern Africa. His Spanish-born wife, Juana Maria de los Dolores de Léon Smith, accompanied him. In the mornings, while Sir Harry savored bacon for breakfast, his wife would eat cantaloupe. The Afrikaans-speaking chefs started referring to cantaloupe as "Spanish bacon," and the name stuck, at least in South Africa.

Incidentally, the English word "cantaloupe" comes Cantalupo, a former papal summer estate in Italy, where the fruit was grown, although it had initially been brought to the Old World from the Americas by Christopher Columbus.

As this will be my last post on Metrolingua, I would like to thank everyone for your time and attention. I've enjoyed sharing my enthusiasm for language with you!

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)

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