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Curious English Words and Phrases

Catherine Stewart

Catherine Stewart

July 11, 2012

Ever wondered where some of gardening’s unusual words originated? Dip into Curious English Words and Phrases $24.99, available from Exisle Publishing or in all good book stores.

Exisle Publishing has kindly given GardenDrum permission to publish these extracts from this intriguing and often funny book by Max Cryer.



[Photo avlxyz]

Apart from a partial similarity of shape, the avocado has nothing to do with pears. It is from the laurel family and is native to the Andean region of South America, which is where the name comes from. When explorers first noticed the avocado trees, with their blackish hanging fruit, they asked the natives what they were called and the locals told them their name for the fruit was ahuacatl, which is more or less what the rest of the world now calls them. What the explorers didn’t realise at the time was what ahuacatl actually means: it is a South American native word for testicles, which the locals thought the avocados resembled. So every time you ask for avocados in the vegetable section, you’re actually asking for ‘testicles’. It’s a clear case of getting away with saying something fairly indelicate as long as you say it in another language.


The word ‘fall’ is used in the United States, referring to the fact that before winter sets in the leaves fall off deciduous trees, leaving the landscape stark. It is an abbreviation of the term ‘fall of the leaf’, which was commonly used in England up to and during the sixteenth century. Emigrants took that term with them to America, where it narrowed down to just ‘fall’. But during the same period, the word gradually fell out of use in Britain, to be replaced by the more formal ‘autumn’.

[Photo BobMcInnes]

Beat around the bush

This term originated with beaters who travelled with game hunters and literally beat the bushes in order to flush out birds or other wildlife. If a person spent too much time beating a bush in a roundabout way, the prize game being looked for might get away and be shot by some other hunter. So the term came to mean travelling a long way round, and from there it has extended to refer to long-winded speech about something that could be revealed quite briefly.


Like many botanical names, it commemorates a person – a French government officer sent on a naval mission to Santo Domingo in 1681. He brought back to Europe the first plant of the species that was later named after him. His name was Michel Bégon.

[Photo selkovjr]


The nuts originated Asia and were cultivated and grown by the ancient Greeks. One region the trees grew freely in was the state of Thessaly – a place called Kastania, known for its prolific crop of chestnuts. It is believed to have been names after the Greek word for chestnuts (which is, of course, Kastania). Later the Romans were also partial to the nuts and the Latin version of the Greek town’s name was Castanea, which became the official Latin name for the chestnut tree (and still is). When the nuts came to England, they were referred to in English as castanea nuts, which was corrupted to chesten nuts, then narrowed down further to chestnuts. But another legacy of the town’s name in English is castanets. Their Spanish name castañuelas relates to their being similar in colour to, and shaped like, big, shiny chestnuts.

[Photo Helen Young]

Cos lettuce

The ancient Arabic word for what we call lettuce was xus, and one particular kind of this vegetable appeared to proliferate on the Greek island of Kos. From this later influence, or possibly from both, the name Kos settled into use. It is also sometimes called ‘romaine’ lettuce, the French version of its name in Italy where it is known as Roman lettuce.

Doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet

It refers to an energetic person who does not allow things around him or her to drift or grow fallow. The expression first appeared in print in the 1500s and has turned up in English in various forms. In the 1500s it used to be ‘no grass grows on his heel’ or ‘no grass grows under his heel’, among other variations. A century later the grass growing under the heel had developed into the version we’re familiar with today. It can also be found in an old book about the history of four-footed beasts, published in 1607, which talks about hares: ‘The hare leaps and lets no grass grow under his feet.’

[Photo nick saltmarsh]


The Stobart Cook’s Encyclopaedia explains that the word ‘horse’, when applied to any foodstuff, indicates that the product is big, strong or coarse. For example, there’s horse mackerel (which is an inferior type of fish), horse mushrooms (which are large and tough), presumably horse chestnuts as well, and also horseradish which, compared with ordinary salad radishes, is large, tough and more pungent.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

[Photo elvissa]


Pineapples are native to Brazil and adjacent parts of South America.They had drifted to the Caribbean islands by the fifteenth century and become quite familiar there. The Caribbean islanders used pineapples as a symbol of hospitality and prosperity, frequently placing one above their door or on their roof. Christopher Columbus was in the Caribbean in 1493 and he became the first known European to see a pineapple, one of which he took back to the King of Spain. At that time the fruit could not be grown in Europe, and as pineapples slowly began to be imported there, their reputation preceded them – the Caribbean symbol of hospitality, but now including a new dimension: extreme rarity and desirability. A gift of a pineapple was considered to be extremely special; a portrait was painted of King Charles II of England being given one as a gift in about 1670.

[Photo takomabibelot]

During the 1700s and 1800s, images of pineapples began to appear with great frequency in European art and architecture. They symbolised hospitality, and people were intrigued by their exotic appearance. Architects and builders frequently included pineapples sculpted from stone, cast from plaster or carved in wood, on gateposts, door frames and occasionally roof trimmings; the fruit carried a connotation of richness and prosperity. During the same period, artists and craftsmen created hundreds of different kinds of smaller pineapples as ornaments: in china, enamel, jewels and in embroidery and fabric design.

In a few cases the use of pineapple ornamentation had some logic – pineapples eventually migrated to Hawaii where the climate suited them perfectly, and the Queen of Hawaii slept in a four-poster bed, the wooden pillars of which were carved in shapes of pineapples atop each other.

But in general the inclusion of the pineapple into building design (and particularly the approach – gateways, doors and entrance arches) was based on its early reputation as a symbol of hospitality.

Its use as a decorative ornament was based on the novelty of its appearance and its connotation of being ‘special’. The name pineapple came about in English because the fruit had a rough, spiky exterior like a pine cone, and a succulent juicy interior like an apple.

One fascinating piece of social trivia about pineapples concerns American hostesses who wanted to keep up with the Joneses. In earlier centuries the fruit was costly and difficult to obtain. Ships were hot and slow, and fruit often rotted. Ripe, wholesome pineapples were a rarity for the society hostesses of cities such as Boston. If a woman could be seen to have a pineapple in her house she was immediately noted as a person of some substance and influence. So sometimes pineapples were actually rented out by the day when a society woman was having a lunch or afternoon tea party. The pineapple was settled into a ‘casual’ arrangement of fruit in a bowl, not to be eaten – just noticed. Later, the same pineapple would be sold to another, richer client whose evening guests would actually eat it.


When a crowd onstage is expected to make a general sound but there are no actual written words, it is a very old theatre tradition (thought to date back as far as Shakespeare’s actors) that they all say ‘rhubarb’ to one other. From this the audience gets a sort of vocal confusion – exactly as a large group of people would sound. Nobody really knows why – perhaps it’s because the word rhubarb contains the sounds ‘oo’ and ‘ah’, moves the face and is easy to remember. Over several hundred years this practice has filtered into the language in general so that, besides the plant, the word rhubarb has taken on an extra area of meaning: noisy nonsense, spoken rubbish, or a noisy argument.

(Rhubarb is a strange-sounding word of somewhat convoluted origin, believed to have filtered through into English via a tangled route from the Latin rheubarbarum, meaning ‘the barbaric root from the Volga’, rhubarb having originated in China and arrived in Europe by way of Russia.)


They are called tulips because of the way they are shaped, but it has nothing to do with lips. Tulips originate in Turkey – myriads are grown in Holland and around the world, but the plant definitely comes originally from Turkey – and their name is a Turkish word tulben meaning ‘turban’ because of the way that tulip petals sit: they look a bit like a wrap-around turban.

Turn over a new leaf

It means to make a fresh start and mend your ways. There is sometimes confusion about whether the comparison is with spring growth on a tree, or the pages of a book. It’s definitely a book: leaf is an alternative way of saying ‘page’. Probably the earliest publication of the expression was in Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, published in 1577, which says ‘he must turn the leaf and take out a new lesson’ – and that indicates a book, not a tree. In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Miss Prism suggests someone turn over a new leaf, and his reply is that he has already begun a whole volume (because, of course, Miss Prism’s admonition concerned the leaf/page of a book).

[Photo SkAYnska Matupplevelser]


Spud is thought to have descended from a word that was quite common 500 years ago: spudde or spudder. This was a kind of knife, and the word eventually widened its application so that spudder came to mean a spade. Things dug up with a spudder were called spuds, and because potatoes were among the things most commonly dug up, the meaning narrowed down so that spuds eventually meant just potatoes.

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