Another seasonal posting, prompted by the (seeming) omnipresence of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite on the radio and from speakers everywhere. Among the dances in the suite is the “Dance of the Mirlitons”, often translated into English as “Dance of the Reed Flutes” (it’s scored for flutes). But what are these mirlitons?

From NOAD2 on the noun mirliton:

1 a musical instrument with a nasal tone produced by a vibrating membrane, typically a toy instrument resembling a kazoo.

2 another term for chayote.

The instrument. I’ll get to the chayotes in a while. Now for the musical instrument.

Wikipedia identifies this as a type of membranophone:

The eunuch flute, or onion flute (Fr. flûte eunuque, flûte à l’oignon and mirliton; Ger. Zwiebelflöte) is a musical instrument of the woodwind family used during the 16th and 17th centuries, producing music akin to the comb-music of the nursery, and still manufactured as a toy (“mirliton”).

The onion flute consists of a wooden tube widening out slightly to form a bell. The upper end of the tube is closed by means of a very fine membrane similar to an onion skin stretched across the aperture like the vellum of a drum. The mouthpiece, a simple round hole, is pierced a couple of inches below the membrane. Into this hole the performer sings, his voice setting up vibrations in the membrane (technically a mirliton), which thus intensifies the sound and changes its timbre to a bleating quality.


The etymology is complex. OED3 (March 2002) has French mirliton for the musical instrument from 1972. Then:

1738 denoting a coin, and in the 19th cent. denoting a type of cake, a hairstyle, and a type of shako, all apparently by analogy with the shape of the instrument); further etymology uncertain

but NOAD2 suggests that it’s imitative, the name imitating the sound of the instrument.

The plant. On the chayote, from Wikipedia:

Chayote (Sechium edule), also known as … mirliton or merleton (Creole/Cajun), chuchu (Brazil), [long list of local names] … is an edible plant belonging to the gourd family Cucurbitaceae, along with melons, cucumbers and squash.

Chayote is originally native to Mexico where it grows abundantly and has little commercial value. It has been introduced as a crop all over Latin America, and worldwide. The main growing regions are Brazil, Costa Rica, Veracruz, Mexico and Abkhazia .

… The word chayote is a Spanish derivative of the Nahuatl word chayohtli… Chayote was one of the many foods introduced to Europe by early explorers, who brought back a wide assortment of botanical samples. The Age of Conquest also spread the plant south from Mexico, ultimately causing it to be integrated into the cuisine of many other Latin American nations.

The chayote fruit is used in mostly cooked forms. When cooked, chayote is usually handled like summer squash, it is generally lightly cooked to retain the crisp flavor

… The chayote vine can be grown on the ground, but as a climbing plant, it will grow onto anything, and can easily rise as high as 12 meters when support is provided. It has heart-shaped leaves, 10–25 cm wide and tendrils on the stem. The plant bears male flowers in clusters and solitary female flowers. The plant’s fruit is light green and elongated with deep ridges lengthwise.


Chayotes earlier on this blog: from 5/24/11, on chow-chow, in which chayote is an ingredient; and from 10/19/11, on escoveitch / escabeche, in which chayote is an ingredient in the sauce.

But how did chayotes get to be called mirlitons? The OED3 etymology is uncertain and speculative:

apparently after Louisiana French mirliton, merliton in this sense (recorded in Dict. Amer. Regional Eng. …), spec. use of French mirliton, presumably on account of the [pear] shape of the squash.

So maybe the two senses are connected. Or maybe not.

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