From Geoff Nathan on ADS-L, the Pearls Before Swine cartoon from yesterday:

Geoff offered Rat’s derivation of sprouts as a prime example of of etymythology, and that it certainly is. Discussion on the strip’s site, meanwhile, took up the question of sprouts ‘sprouted seeds used as an ingredient or accompaniment in food preparation’ vs. sprouts ‘Brussels sprouts’; as far as I know, no one puts Brussels sprouts in sandwiches, and Goat’s sandwich surely has alfalfa sprouts or something similar in it.

(Goodness knows what broccoli stands for in Rat’s world, and I don’t think Pastis is going to tell us.)

On the notion of etymythology, from a 4/30/10 Word Routes column by Ben Zimmer (“Watch Out for Etymythology!”):

Etymythology is a nifty term invented by Larry Horn, a linguist at Yale University whom I’ve known ever since I was an undergrad. In a 2004 article in American Speech, Horn defined etymythology as “the lexical version of the urban legend, a fable — or more generously a piece of culturally based arcane wisdom — not transmitted by scholarly research but passed on by word of mouth (or computer).” Common etymythologies include derivations of words from bogus acronyms, such as cop = “Constable On Patrol,” golf = “Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden,” posh = “Port Out Starboard Home,” and tip = “To Insure Politeness” (or “Promptness”). Such acronymic explanations are almost invariably unsupported by historical evidence, but they make nice tales to tell.

The etymythologies told by companies about their products also take the shape of formulaic “just-so stories,” with all the narrative appeal of Kipling recounting how the leopard got his spots. Keds recently claimed that they coined the word sneakers, but they were forced to backtrack on this after a Times reporter confronted them with examples of the word predating the founding of the company. I tackle (and debunk) a number of other corporate word myths in the On Language column, from Haggar’s claim on slacks to Hershey’s claim on kisses.

The actual etymology of sprouts is as uninteresting as could be. It starts with the verb sprout, in senses much like today’s, in OE (and closely related Germanic languages), later nouned, and then specialized in the plural in two senses of interest to us here. From OED2:

pl. Young or tender shoots or side-growths of various vegetables, esp. of the cabbage-kind. [first cite in 1639]

[pl.] ellipt. for Brussels sprouts (see Brussels n.). [first cite in 1858]

On sprouts in the first of these senses, from Wikipedia on sprouting:

Sprouting is the practice of germinating seeds to be eaten either raw or cooked. Sprouted foods are a convenient way to have fresh vegetables for salads, or otherwise, in any season and can be germinated at home or produced industrially. They are a prominent ingredient of the raw food diet and common in Eastern Asian cuisine.

… All viable seeds can be sprouted, but some sprouts should not be eaten raw. The most common food sprouts include:

Pulses (legumes; pea family): alfalfa, clover, fenugreek, lentil, pea, chickpea, mung bean and soybean (bean sprouts).

Cereals: oat, wheat, maize (corn), rice, barley, rye, kamut and then quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat (these last three are used as cereal even if botanically they are not)

Oilseeds: sesame, sunflower, almond, hazelnut, linseed, peanut.

Brassica (cabbage family): broccoli, cabbage, watercress, mustard, mizuna, mustard, radish and daikon (kaiware sprouts), rocket (arugula), tatsoi, turnip, watercress.

Umbelliferous vegetables (parsley family) – these may be used more as microgreens than sprouts: carrot, celery, fennel, parsley.

Allium (onions) – cannot really distinguish between microgreens [and sprouts]: onion, leek, green onion (me-negi in Japanese cuisine)

Other vegetables and herbs: spinach, lettuce, milk thistle, lemon grass

On microgreens:

Microgreen or micro green refers to a whole plant harvested at a young seedling stages after a few leaves have developed beyond the cotyledons. It is distinguished from sprouts, which are younger: i.e., still seedling where just the cotyledons have opened up (like kaiware sprouts from daikon seeds), or have not opened (like bean sprouts), or sprouted grains, etc. But there will be ambiguity in the case of monocots, such as the Japanese me-negi (scallion seedlings).

In any case, the list of sprouts with culinary uses is huge, though only a few are really common. In many contexts (stir-frying Chinese food, for instance), plain sprouts usually means ‘bean sprouts’, specifically ‘mung bean or [especially] soybean sprouts’; in the context of sandwich-making, the sprouts will probably be alfalfa sprouts, though spicy sprouts are popular in some places (like the Bay Area).

(Note the customary (imperfect) disambiguation of an item by context. For sprouts, a lot depends on what kind of food you’re talking about.)


I suppose there are people who just dislike


2 Responses to “sprouts”

  1. Licia Says:

    I suppose Rat’s sprouts could also be described as a backronym?

  2. Gay greens: the Big Two | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] endive, Belgian endive, flat (or Italian) parsley, and basil (especially the fancy varieties). (Sprouts of all kinds are hippie greens.) The association with queers comes primarily from these being […]

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