A Very Brief History of the Cucumber

I am a confirmed enemy of the cucumber, but in a spirit of détente here is a Cucumber Map of Europe and surrounds, taken from Frank Jacob’s Strange Maps.

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From Frank Jacob’s post on the subject, I have purloined the following facts:

  • The Cucumber seems to have been among the first plants domesticated by man. It spread from India to Han China in the East and Mesopotamia in the West, where its existence was dutifully noted in some of the earliest human writing.
  • The deranged Emperor Tiberius ordained that cucumbers should be cultivated on raised and wheeled beds, so that they could follow the sun and he could eat them on every day of the year.
  • The cucumber was introduced to the Americas by Columbus, who planted them on Hispaniola in 1494. Thereafter their spread outstripped that of European colonization, the cucumber evidently being tastier and more succulent than the conquistador.

***

An isogloss map, such as that of the cucumber above, shows the distribution of cognates of a given word. Paleolinguists are fond of them, as they were once thought to point the way (obliquely) to the Ur-heimat, or homeland, of the orginators of the Indo-European language. It was believed that if you could make an exhaustive list of the cognates identifiable in modern Indo-European-derived languages – species of tree, for example, or bird; or various technologies – you could narrow down a geographical homeland that  possessed, for example, birch and alder but not oak; or robin and blackbird but not oriole; or bridle and harness but not boat. And so on. (I’ve mentioned this before, in connection with the Norwegians and their small windows).

Of course what this theory (long-since abandoned, I believe) fails to account for is the malleability of terms. If you were migrating from one land to another, you would most likely adapt existing words to new phenomena rather than inventing new words. Hence, for example, the American Robin. Specific words for trees might in this way become more generalised, or the cocomero (Italian for watermelon) might somehow be displaced in favour of the interloper cetriolo (from the Latin, as it happens, citriolum; cocomero is also from the Latin, cucumis, which, confusingly, translates into Italian as cetriolo). Exhausting.

Here, for the sake of comparison, is an isogloss map for the orange. Draw your own conclusions.

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The orange map is taken from imgur, here. With thanks to Frank Jacobs. 

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