asparagus, topinambur

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jan 26 20:25:33 UTC 2011

On a whim, I checked if "grass" for asparagus is in the OED (no reason
to suspect otherwise, but I thought I'd check anyway). It's there, but
the definition leaves a lot to be desired:

grass n.1 11.
> 11. Short for sparrow-grass n., corrupt form of asparagus n. Now vulgar.

It might have been originally "corrupt for asparagus", but I can cite a
number of chefs who literally think of asparagus as "grass" (cattle
usually does not make that distinction either). But I am more puzzled by
the "vulgar" reference. In US, "grass" is a fairly standard reference to
asparagus in commercial kitchens and produce shops. Indeed, some of it
may fall under "vulgar", but somehow I don't think that applies to
chefs' language in general. Besides, "now" may well refer to the
citation cut-off date of 1898.

Sure enough, 1911 Century Dictionary lists sparagus, sparagrass,
sparrow-grass, etc. as "vulgar". But that attitude seems to be obsolete
in its own right.

It's got to the point that there is even differentiation between
different kinds of "grass"--although it's usually nearly impossible to
get your pick of asparagus by thickness in the supermarket, there are
clearly divergent preferences as some prefer thin asparagus spears for
cooking while others consider them runt and demand the thick, meaty
stalks. Correspondingly, the thin spears are occasionally referred to as
"spaghetti grass". This occasionally confuses authors of culinary
Field Guide to Produce. By Aliza Green. 2004. p. 119
> In England, "sprue" is the name for extra-thin spears, called
> "asparagus grass" or "spaghetti grass" in America.

Green repeated an identical claim in her next book. (2006 ) I can't say, I've ever heard "spaghetti grass" in
the wild, so I am not entirely certain about Green's claim. But the
choice of thickness is a matter of preference, as some people consider
thick stalks "overgrown".
Wine Spectator [apparently 2000, issue, page number not available; text
from preview--none in snippet]
> But is there a difference in quality between California and Peruvian
> asparagus? Tony Merola, a consultant to the produce industry --- which
> colloquially calls asparagus "grass" --- says no. "Grass is grass.
> There is no difference in taste."

I'm not entirely sure what "colloquially" means here--I suspect, that's
simply a reference to the use as jargon.

Note that of all the OED quotations, only the latest (1898) refers to
"grass" as a plant, as opposed to vegetable. Here's a useful interdating
(the context is unmistakable, as the book describes different methods of
planting asparagus):
An Encyclopaedia of Gardening: Comprising the Theory and Practice of
Horticulture, Floriculture, Arboriculture, and Landscape-Gardening,
Including All the Latest Imrpovements. By John Claudius Loudon. 1824
Asparagus. p. 645
> At the time of planting, I always spread over the ground another thin
> coat of very rotten dung and point it in half a spade deep, making my
> beds three feet wide only, with two feet of alleys ; so that three
> rows of /grass/, one foot apart, are all I plant on each bed : I find
> this to be the best method, as by this plan there is not the least
> trouble in gathering, whereas you are obliged to set a foot on one of
> the wide beds, before you can get at all the /grass/, to the great
> injury of the bed and the buds under the surface.

Another interesting piece comes from the Atlantic (1879).
The Atlantic. January 1879
Americanisms. p. 97/1
> This is amazing; for it shows that a man of intelligence and reading
> has still to learn that grass is, and has been for certainly more than
> a century, a vulgar British corruption of asparagus.
> /Grass/. "A vulgar contraction of sparrow-grass, that is, asparagus.
> Further than this the force of corruption can hardly go." This is
> amazing; for it shows that a man of intelligence and reading has still
> to learn that /grass/ is, and has been for certainly more than a
> century, a vulgar British corruption of asparagus. In a recent number
> of Punch one of Charles Keene's clever social sketches shows a solemn
> "heavy swell" in the box of an eating-house with a waiter before him,
> to whom he says that he "be-lieves--he--will--take
> some--haricot-of-mutton and some as-par-agus;" the waiter, hardly
> waiting for the words to pass his lips, turns and shouts into the
> kitchen, "Arico 'n grass!" It shows also that the compiler of our
> dictionary is unacquainted with the following comment made by Walker
> upon /asparagus/ almost one hundred years ago:
> "This word is vulgarly pronounced /sparrow-grass/. It may be observed
> that such words as the vulgar do not know how to spell, and which
> convey no definite idea of the thing, are frequently changed by them
> into such words as they do know how to spell, and which do convey some
> definite idea. The word in question is an instance of it; and the
> corruption of this word into /sparrow-grass/ is so general that
> /asparagus/ has an air /of stiffness and pedantry/." (Dictionary, /in
> v./)

Here's a related question. I am not familiar with current British usage
of "sprue". OED sprue n.3 suffers from the same problem as "grass": the
definition is questionable and the citations end in 1895 (so the meaning
might have evolved since then).

> A poor or inferior quality of asparagus. Also sprue grass.

I /have/ heard "sprue" used as a generic term for asparagus, as there
was no distinction made in the context between the quality or thickness
of stalks when I heard it. But there is also a question of general
accuracy of the "poor or inferior quality" reference at all--as I
mentioned, the "quality" corresponding to the thickness of asparagus
today is a matter of preference, not dogma. But even the quotations in
the OED in no way point to the issue of quality. I suppose, one could
surmise that lower price for "sprue", compared to "asparagus", is an
indication of quality in the 1895 quotation. Or that Soyer's
recommendation to boil the sprue is an indication of quality--but
consider the fact that a 1905 cookbook of Asian food recommended the
proper way of cooking rice as rapid boil for 1 hour. (Current
recommendation is very low heat, covered, for 15-20 minutes.) In any
case, I just don't see the connection between use of "sprue" and
quality. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the original
compilers of the OED did not know their way around the kitchen.

The last bit is unrelated to asparagus, but the corresponding entry
suffers from similar issues. Looking over Russian (as in "published in
Russia, in Russian") cookbooks, as well as some other European
cookbooks, I had to scratch my head occasionally over references to
"topinambur". Most dictionaries do not have an entry, culinary
glossaries ignore the term and I never thought of checking the OED until
/after/ I discovered that the word (or variants) has been used in
English for some time. I did solve the mystery at one point, only to
forget my find later.

In the current issue of La Cucina Italiana (Jan/Feb 2011, p. 45/1) there
is a recipe for risotto mantecato e topinambur, which is, quite
correctly--although, incompletely--translated as "Jerusalem artichoke
risotto. That is, topinambur is the original name for "Jerusalem
artichokes" or its modern, rebranded name "sunchokes" (because of the
plant's resemblance to the sunflower). Sure enough, the OED has an entry
albeit not under "topinambur" [sic].

> topinambou, n.
> Pronunciation: /t?p??næmbu?/
> Forms:  Also 18 -bour, -bar.
> Etymology: < French topinambou (16th cent.), now topinambour, from the
> name of a people of Brazil....
>   A name for the Jerusalem Artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus, a native
> of tropical America.
> 1666    J. Davies tr. C. de Rochefort Hist. Caribby-Islands 56
> Topinambous or artichokes which are now not only very common in most
> parts but cheap.
> 1698    Osborne tr. Froger Voy. Straits Magellan 60   The potato and
> ighname are roots very like the toupinanbous.
> 1858    P. L. Simmonds Dict. Trade Products,   Topinambar, a name for
> the Jerusalem artichoke.
> 1866    J. Lindley & T. Moore Treasury Bot.,   Topinambour, (Fr.)
> Helianthus tuberosus.

 From the culinary perspective, the 1698 quotation is particularly
amusing, as the comparison goes in the opposite direction today, as most
people are far more familiar with potatoes than with topinambour.
Incidentally, OED has /no entry/ for sunchoke, although the substitute
name for Jerusalem artichokes has been around at least since late 1980s.
More interestingly, the Jerusalem artichoke entry has no mention of
etymology [artichoke n. 2.]:

> 2. More fully Jerusalem artichoke, +artichoke of Jerusalem. A species
> of sunflower, Helianthus tuberosus, native to North America and widely
> cultivated for its edible, knobby, tuberous roots, which somewhat
> resemble the globe artichoke in flavour.

Returning to Aliza Green's 2004 book (see above, p. 262), we get a
glimpse of the possible origin of both English names for the vegetable.

> /The sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is a gnarled tan tuber f a
> perennial flower of the Compositae family./ Sunchokes originated in
> North America where they were a common food for Native Americans. In
> Italy, they are known as /girasole articiocco/, "sunflower artichoke."
> This may actually be the source of their other name, Jerusalem
> artichoke, not the city in Israel, as people misheard the word
> /girasole/. The French term, /topinambour/, comes from a South
> American tribe, the Topinambas, members of which visited France around
> the same time the tubers were introduced to Europe in the 16th
> century. The French are credited with improving the tubers and
> cultivating sunchokes on a large scale.

So "sunchoke" is just a portmanteau of a calque from Italian, while
"Jerusalem artichoke" is the original eggcorn from the same? Aside from
the fact that "artichoke" in Italian is "carciofo", this sounds rather
plausible. This also corresponds to the OED 1860s quotations:

> 1861    T. L. Peacock Gryll Grange i,   From this girasol we have made
> Jerusalem, and from the Jerusalem artichoke we make Palestine soup.
> 1866    J. Lindley & T. Moore Treasury Bot. I. 575/1   The name of
> Jerusalem Artichoke is considered to be a corruption of the Italian
> Girasole Articocco, or Sunflower Artichoke, under which name it is
> said to have been originally distributed from the Farnese garden at
> Rome soon after its introduction to Europe in 1617.

So what's "artic[i]occo"? Google can't translate it. Cocco is coconut
and ciocco is related to chocolate (but also means "stump"), so draw
your own conclusions... OED etymology suggests that it was Northern
Italian adaptation of Spanish /alcarchofa/ (from Arabic, of course),
that was adopted in the South as carciofo--which does not explain why
Italians would adopt an Arabic name for a plant in the 15th century when
they've been eating it for centuries earlier--could it have gone in the
opposite direction? (or both borrowed from Jews, oh, say, 5th century?)

In any case, looks like grass n.1 11., sprue n.3, Jerusalem artichoke,
sunchoke and topinambou entries in the OED need some updates.


PS: It looks like the 1824 gardening book and the 1879 Atlantic article
could prove to be hours of fun.

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