From Now On, We'll Call This A Cucumber

July 31, 2020


Back in May, when I asked my faithful readers for input on future topics, my friend Eric was quick to reply. From Essex, England, where he lives and works, Eric wrote:

I've always been curious about etymology. Where do words come from? Who creates them and how do they become common parlance? Who first looked at a cucumber and said, from now on, we'll call this a “cucumber"?

With that little email, Eric enveloped me in a warm fuzzy feeling. First, I love the phrase common parlance – although Eric and I may be in the minority on that one. I once mused aloud whether some word or other was common parlance, and my friend Greg answered by saying, “I’m not sure common parlance is even common parlance.” Touché.

Second, while I am a self-confessed word nerd, I’m rather embarrassed to admit that I don’t often think about where words come from. I know, I know…for a student of English Literature, that is practically heresy, but long ago, I chose typing over Latin, and I have never looked back. Until Eric’s email arrived, that is.

His question piqued my curiosity: where, indeed, does the word cucumber come from?

According to Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary, cucumber originated in English somewhere between 1350 and 1400. It comes from the Old French cocombre (Modern French concombre) and ultimately from the Latin cucumis/cucumerem, perhaps from a pre-Italic Mediterranean language. Or so I’m told.

While that might explain where cucumber comes from, it doesn’t fully explain how words in general originate.

The general study of the origin of words, and the way in which their meanings have evolved over time, is called etymology. The “etymology” of a particular word is the origin of that word and its historical development.

The word etymology itself comes to English from the Ancient Greek, an Indo-European language spoken in Greece from approximately 800 BC to 100 BC. Note that etymology is commonly confused with entomology, another word of Greek origin which means the study of insects. In fact, most English words come from Greek or Latin, and many are borrowed, mostly from Latin.

OK, OK, I can hear you saying, but how did those first words, be they Greek or Latin or something else, come about? As Eric put it: Who first looked at a cucumber and said, from now on we’ll call this a “cucumber”?

Well…if you were in the ancient naming business, one technique might be to select a name that would be easy to remember. Thus, as explained by Joy Ho and Erin Ross in “The Seahorse In Your Brain: Where Body Parts Got Their Names”, Greek, Roman and medieval scholars named bones, organs and muscles after what they looked like. For example, the tibia, the thick bone at the front of your lower leg, is named after a similar-looking flute. And the seahorse-shaped hippocampus, one of the parts of the brain involved in memory, is named after the Greek word for, you guessed it, seahorse.

And, so we go, unpeeling the onion, until we are no longer talking etymology, but rather linguistics. Evolutionary linguistics, to be exact. The study of how, when, why and where language first emerged.

And, Eric, I’m sorry to tell you, nobody really knows. But there are theories…

In his article, “How did language evolve?”, Charles W. Bryant, co-host of the How Stuff Works podcast, provides a nice summary. One theory, says Bryant, is that language came about as an evolutionary adaptation – to help humans survive. Humans needed to communicate with each other to hunt, farm, defend themselves and interact socially.

The other competing theory is that language evolved as a result of other evolutionary processes. That is, language is essentially a byproduct of evolution and not a specific adaptation.

Of course, both of these theories are much, much more complicated, and as Bryant points out, they might not even be mutually exclusive:

“Surely a Homo sapien with more advanced communication skills would have some kind of evolutionary advantage over his single-word grunting cousin. But that more refined Homo sapien wouldn’t even have the opportunity to speak his first sentence if his brain hadn’t evolved to allow him to make a primitive hammer.”

Wherever you land, just know this, linguists, archaeologists, psychologists, anthropologists and other smart researchers have been debating this thorny issue since Darwin was alive. They will likely continue to do so for centuries to come.

As for our humble cucumber (or cowcumber, as they called it in the 1790s), with all this academic uncertainty, I’ll stick to what I’ve always thought – the thing just looks like a cucumber, don’t you think?

Remember this:
Etymology is the study of the origin and evolution of words; entomology is the study of bugs. If you’re so inclined, feel free to look up the etymology of entomology.

P.S. In case you’re also burning to know about the “dog days of summer”, the expression refers to the 40 days from July 3 to August 11. In the Northern Hemisphere, this is usually a period of hot, humid weather that coincides with the dawn rising of Sirius, the Dog Star. The name Sirius stems from the Ancient Greek seirios, meaning scorching.