Stephen Switzer, on French and English Apple Rivalries

“The French indeed (who would fain be the first in every thing) will scare allow us here in England, to have any Fruit that is valuable, but what comes from them: And though there are some good Sorts of Fruit in the Countries over-against us of Normandy and Brittany, &c. and perhaps some about Paris, yet what are their Cousinots, Orgerans, Francatuses, Fennilets, Calvilles, Haute Bontes, and a bundance more hard Names compared with our Permains, Gilliflowers, Pippins, Reynets, and the like, not to mention the Nonpareil, and the several Sorts of Russetings, concerning the Original of which they would needs contend with us? Though there are some Trees of this Kind of above a hundred Years Standing in England; yet such is the natural Arrogance of those People, that when they can but once get Possession of an Fruit and put one of their cramp Names on it, it is immediately their own; and so like a Crow, they strut with Feathers borrowed out of other People’s Caps.”

Stephen Switzer, The Practical Fruit Gardener (1724), p. 133-134

I stumbled across this passage – Mr Switzer, doing his bit for Anglo-French relations, back in the early eighteenth century – when I was scanning some of the earlier extant works on pomology for information on the ‘Court Pendu Plat’ apple, for a post I’m putting together on the way in which its name has changed over the past few centuries.

I do rather like this particular extract, not so much for the display of frothing-at-the-mouth, anti-French invective, but for the distinct etymological ironies involved.

After all, the names ‘pippin’, ‘reynet’, ‘gilliflower’ and of course ‘nonpareil’ are all derived from French words: ‘pepin’, meaning ‘seed’, and so ‘seedling’; ‘reinette’, possibly meant to suggest ‘little queen’, although the exact meaning is debated; ‘gilofre’, meaning ‘clove’, suggesting the apple or its blossom may have been clove-scented; and ‘non pareil’, which translates to ‘none the same’, in the sense of an apple ‘without equal’.

I’ve also read a theory somewhere that the term ‘permain’ – which these days is usually spelled ‘pearmain’ and is therefore interpreted to indicate a pear-shaped apple, which to be fair is quite often, but not always, the case with the ‘pearmain’ varieties I’ve seen – could originally come from ‘per main’, which is French for ‘by hand’, perhaps suggesting a smaller, hand-sized, dessert apple rather than a larger, lumpier cooker?

Even ‘russet’, which in the mid C13th was a type of rough-spun, reddish-brown cloth commonly worn by the peasantry of England, derives from the French ‘rousset’ (‘reddish’), which in turn comes from the Latin ‘russus’, and goes right on back to the Proto Indo-European ‘reudh’ (‘red’), at least according to etymonline.com.

So, Mr Switzer (whose surname means ‘Swiss’, by the by) if these apple names are so anciently English, how come they’re all derived from French terminology? Eh? Eh? Riddle me that, Monsieur.

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