Though, like many people, I take a keen interest in Arab words adopted into European languages, this linguistic crossover alone isn’t enough to quench my thirst for knowledge. Sometimes it even runs counter to the point I’m trying to make. For Arab civilisation is more than just one of Western civilisation’s wellsprings; it is not just a way-point, still less a mere conduit; Arab civilisation, first and foremost, is daughter to the same ancestors as the West, and is much inspired by Greece and Rome. Furthermore, she has borrowed plentifully from the Persians, Indians, Turks, Arameans and Hebrews, as well as from Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. And she has given abundantly in return to all of these, or to their heirs.
That is why I am only too pleased to debunk the myths surrounding words whenever I have the chance. I like to either reveal the eastern origins of words when these aren’t immediately obvious – as is the case, for instance, with the words ‘mattress’, ‘punch’ and ‘rose’ – or, conversely, to flush out the more complicated etymological roads taken by words that at first blush appear to have obvious oriental origins, as I showed with ‘alcohol’. The word ‘apricot’ is very much of the same kind.
The names for the apricot in various European languages – abricot, aprikose, albicocca, albaricoque, albricoque, albercoc, etc. – come from the old Arabic name for this fruit, al-barqouq. Oddly, this word no longer means the same thing in the Arab world. In those countries where it is still used, it generally refers to the plum rather than to the apricot; more generally in agronomic publications, it denotes all the species that belong to the genus prunus, which includes plums, apricots, cherries, peaches and almonds. The apricot itself is commonly known as meshmesh in the Egyptian pronunciation or meshmosh in the Lebanese.
I don’t know the origin of this last word, and the paucity of Arabic etymological data doesn’t encourage me to go digging for it, at least not for the moment. The source of the word al-barqouq, on the other hand, is well established. The Arabs borrowed it from the Byzantines – the Roum – who called this fruit a praikokion, which comes from the Latin word praecoquum, meaning ‘precocious’ – a name doubtlessly given to the apricot because it fruits earlier than others.
But this name is relatively recent. In the ancient world, the Romans called the apricot armeniaca because they discovered it through Armenia. In some Latin American countries – Argentina or Chile, for example – the fruit is called damasco, no doubt because Syrian immigrants brought with them particularly popular varieties of it. Indeed, one Damascus specialty is an apricot paste known as qamareddin – literally, ‘the moon of religion’, a funny expression that originally denoted a type of apricot.
But back to the Romans: their word for apricot, armeniaca, had a counterpart in the word persica, their name for another fruit, this one supposedly from Persia. This word gave Swedish persika, Dutch perzik, German pfirsich, Italian pesca, French pêche and English ‘peach’. But that will be the subject of another post.