In a Word: When Is a Mango Not a Mango

The mango has had quite a ride in the English language.


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Senior managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Before we delve into the history of mango, let’s take a moment to look at pickles. Just about any fruit or vegetable can be pickled; there’s an aisle in your local supermarket where you can grab a jar of pickled beets, pickled asparagus, pickled banana peppers, pickled onions, pickled carrots, and on and on.

You’ll also find a large selection of pickled cucumber, but they won’t be labeled pickled cucumber. Those, to most Americans, are simply pickles. For pickled cucumbers, and only for pickled cucumbers, the name of the way it was prepared has transitioned into a noun and become the name of that preserved vegetable — the pickle.

It’s a little odd, yes? But it isn’t the only foodstuff this sort of thing has happened to.

The British Empire started making trading inroads in Southeast Asia, and especially India, in the 1500s. (And yes, there’s a whole history of colonial oppression and exploitation, but that sorry bit of history isn’t pertinent to this story.) One of the benefits of that trade was access to foods that weren’t available in western Europe. Foods like the mango.

Various languages spoken in and around India had similar words for this fruit, including the Malayalam mānna, Malay mangga, and Tamil mankay, from man “mango tree” and kay “fruit.” Portuguese traders brought the word to Europe as the manga, which became the English mango.

Of course, way back then, refrigeration technology hadn’t progressed far enough to allow whole mango fruits to make it back to England, much less the New World, in an edible state. Mangoes had to be preserved for shipping — they were pickled. And that’s how British citizens in the West experienced the Asian delicacy.

Over time, though — in the reverse of what was saw with pickled cucumbers — the fruit mango transitioned to become the way the mango was preserved. (Pickling was more often used to describe the preservation of meats at this time.) Mango became a verb referring to the pickling process, and one could mango peaches, or trade jars of mangoed asparagus.

People would also eat mangoed peppers. Christopher Columbus brought peppers back to Europe in 1493, and horticulturists ever since have developed new and tastier (or hotter) types of peppers. Bell peppers, also called sweet peppers, which don’t contain the heat-causing capsaicin, were mangoed either alone or stuffed with other items, cabbage being a particular favorite. They were pretty popular.

With these pickled bell peppers, the linguistic process reversed and mirrored what happened with the modern pickle: mangoed bell peppers came to be called, simply, mangoes. It went a step further, though, so that bell peppers that hadn’t been pickled were called mangoes, too.

From The Florist and Pomologist and Suburban Gardener: A Pictorial Magazine of Horticulture, and Register of Garden Novelties, 1883

This usage caught on for a time, but for the most part it has disappeared in the English-speaking world — except in parts of the Ohio River Valley. In southern Indiana and northern Kentucky, some people still call bell peppers mangoes, and some produce sellers even label their items as “mango fruits” and “mango peppers.”

From How to Cook by Marion Holmes, 1880

In other places farther south, and through the same process, muskmelons and cantaloupes were also once called mangoes.

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