Words about words: That raisin in the sun might be a grape

Photo: Franco di filippo / Wikimedia Commons
Grapes turn to raisins on the vine.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Were you to walk on a path through a vineyard in southern France after the grape harvest season in September, you might remake one of the oldest vinicultural discoveries, dating from about 2000 B.C. Along the edges of the path, where the pickers have missed them, there will be clusters of grapes dried to raisins in the sun, tempting you to pick and eat them on the spot.

The etymology of the word raisin starts some two millennia later, after 75 B.C., when Latin became the written language of the Roman Republic. The Latin word racemus, meaning a cluster of grapes or berries, gave rise to at least five synonymous forms in Old French: rais-, razin, reis-, resin, and rosin. From the Old French, these words evolved to the modern rosin in Norwegian and Danish, russin in Swedish, and via Anglo-French of the 13th century, to the modern raisin in French and in English.

But along the etymological route there was a twist. The Latin racemus evolved via Old French to grappe de raisin in modern French, in which the word grappe means bunch or cluster. That led to a linguistic disparity between French and English. In 1290 the word grape was first mentioned in the South English Legendary, a Middle English hagiographic work, as meaning “one of the berries, growing in clusters on a vine.” That led to it being the word for the fruiting berry in modern English.

Curiously, the etymology of the Norwegian word drue (grape) also deviated from a direct route from racemus. It evolved from the Medieval low German drūf, meaning cluster. So both Norwegian and English have different words for the fruiting berries that can be eaten or made into wine and the dried berries known as rosin and raisin. But as French retained raisin for both the fruiting berry and the dried one, the dried version is called raisin sec, literally “dried grape.”

Originally published in Norwegian on the Clue dictionaries blog at blogg.clue.no.

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and with time turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the July 14, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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