The arabic origin of the Italian eggplant

 In Blog

Most people may not be aware that in the Italian lexicon there are about 1671 words borrowed from languages that were spoken within the borders of the Caliphate and, later on, of the Ottoman Empire (namely ArabicPersianOttoman Turkish).

The story begins in the VII century with the first arabic raids in the Mediterranean. From that moment, and not only in Italy, people started without compunction to speak differently. Thanks to the first contact and language exchanges with the Arabic speaking area, loans and calques have appeared in our languages. To each one of the various areas of contact between Islām and the West corresponded a distribution channel of lexical elements of oriental origin in european languages, with a particular regard to Italy, whose geographic position obviously propitiates lexical penetration and exchange. Some of these channels are undoubtfully the Iberian Dominance (VII-XV cent.), the conquest of Sicily (827-1091 d.c.), the Crusades with the so called via delle carovane and, last but not least, the trade relations between Arabs and the Repubbliche Marinare. Pisa, Genova and Venezia were used to host a lot of eastern merchants and indeed loans from that period entered the vocabulary of science and business.

Among the semantic domains, the botanic one is one of the reachest. For example melanzana, with its ancient name petonciano, comes from the arabic persian bādingiān (modern turkish patlıcan), mixed with the italian mela. Nevertheless, Greek knows melizanafrom the XIII century, therefore it could be seen as an influence from mélas “black”, as black is the color of the vegatable. According to a legend that connects the abuse of eggplant to madness, linguists also noticed that melanzana has been perceived by speakers, following a process of pseudo-etimology, as a compound word: mele insane (as to say, “apples of madness”).

A well-known Italian doctor and humanist of the sixteenth century, Pierandrea Mattioli, in his Commentari al Discoride wrote: «Poiché i frutti della mandragora si dimandano mele terrestri e canine, mi fanno venire alla mente quelle che si chiamano melanzane, più presto da nominare (come io penso) mele insane». And in some areas of the Middle East it’s not unusual for western tourists to be lectured by zealous restaurant owners when attempting to eat eggplant’s skin, still considered “toxic”.

The truth is that the eggplant produces “solanina”, a toxic substance that, if eaten raw, causes stomach pain and dizziness. No madness whatsoever, then: you can eat your melanzane alla parmigiana without fear. 🙂

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