Word of the Day: fruit.
There’s a modern Bible translation that afflicts Catholics every Sunday for their sins, while giving Satan and his minions time to snooze. Here is one of its renderings I find almost comically bad: “And he sent his servants to them, to gather the produce of the land.” How did that flat business word get in there? As if Jesus should say, “By their produce you shall know them,” evidently giving to all mankind the right criterion for judging a supermarket. It is as if Saint Paul should declare Christ to be the first produce of the resurrection, or as if God had commanded Adam and Eve to partake of the produce of all the trees in the garden, but of the produce of the tree in the midst of the garden, the produce of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, of that produce they should not eat, for on the day they ate thereof, they should surely experience an increase in the Eden Mortality Rate.
Sometimes I believe that Bible translators, unless they are just malignant, have been afflicted with audiostannism – if you’ll forgive the coinage. We praise the great Greek preacher John by remembering him as the Golden-Mouthed; I doubt he ever pattered about the price of produce in Pergamon. Anyway, the Greek was karpous, fruits, literally things you pluck off a tree. The Romans had their verb carpere, to seize, to pluck, which survives in the proverb carpe diem, seize the day – grab the fruit and enjoy it. The poet Horace coined the phrase in a wistful little love song.
But the Latin word for fruit, frux, wasn’t related to what you do with fruit when it’s ripe. It was related to what the tree does: it bears fruit. We borrowed words directly from the Latin for the sugar that fruit contains, fructose, and for the virtue of stretching the fruit of your labors, frugality, and for making something else bear a lot of fruit, fructify. We had already had the word fruit, from the Norman French invaders; that word came from the Latin fructus.
Do we have any words in English that the fancy-dancy French fruit displaced? After all, there were fruit trees in England before the French got there, and it doesn’t seem likely that the Saxons said, “Go pick me one of those things there that hang from that there tree.” What does Grimm’s Law say? Never eat an apple from an ugly old lady. Actually, it relates Germanic consonants to their Latin / Greek kinfolk. Grimm’s Law says that Latin f = Germanic b. We are looking, then, for a Germanic word beginning with b, followed by r and a vowel (or a vowel and r; they change places a lot), followed by a back-of-the-mouth consonant. Is there such a word? Sure: Old English byrig, mulberry: Modern English berry. Botanists now use the word berry in a more general sense, though with a quite precise meaning. A berry bears its seeds scattered inside a fleshy and usually edible pulp. I’m not a botanist, so I hope that that definition will do. A blueberry is a berry, but so are a tomato and an orange.
But byrig wasn’t our old word for fruit in general. That old word was aeppel: Modern English apple. That’s the origin, there, of the idea that Adam and Eve ate an apple. What they ate was a fruit. It could have been a pear or a peach or a plum – or an apple.