The Avocado Chronicles: 2 etymology and etymythology

The text for today, a piece from the NPR Kitchen Window site (“A weekly peek into the kitchen with tasty tales and recipes”), “What’s in a Name? The Avocado Story” by Howard Yoon, from 7/19/06: a monstrous tapestry of confusion, error, and fabrication, tracing the English food name avocado to a 1914 coinage by California farmers who became the California Avocado Association (an organization that was probably the source of most of the balled-up fantasy below).

Previously in the Avocado Chronicles, the first bulletin, on gay men who pass as straight. From my 7/11/19 posting “Three Pride moments”, about a Marks & Spencer GLBT sandwich (a BLT with guacamole), leading to an Urban Dictionary entry for avocado, in an inventive coinage for ‘a homosexual who is indiscernibly gay’ — because avocados are “fruits [botanical term for plant parts or products], but do not look or taste much like fruits [the everyday English term referring to a type of sweet foodstuff]”, with a play on the slur fruit ‘queer, homo, fag(got)’, referring to a homosexual / gay man.

Just to note again that this is not only a choice between a technical use of fruit (in botany) and an ordinary-language use, but also between items from completely different referential domains: fruit as a term for a plant part or product, fruit as a term for a foodstuff. Insisting on the plant-part teminology as the only true or correct one is just silly. (But if you insist, I’ll remind you that the kind of botanical fruit that an avocado is is a berry: in the technical terminology of botanical anatomy, an avocado is a great big berry, with one large seed, just as a watermelon is a really huge berry with lots of seeds, and botanically neither strawberries nor mulberries are berries at all.)

The 2006 avocado story.

On May 15, 1915, in the posh new Hotel Alexandria in Los Angeles, a cadre of California farmers gathered to decide the fate of a new crop.

The ahuacate, a pebbly-skinned, pear-shaped fruit, had been a staple food in Mexico, and Central and South America since 500 B.C. In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors fell in love with the fruit after observing its prized status among the Aztecs. [This has the sound of romantic fantasy. But what, exactly, did the conquistadors do with the ahuacates?]

Until the early 1900s, the ahuacate had never been grown commercially in the United States. By 1914, however, hotels in Los Angeles and San Francisco were ordering as many of the fruits as they could and paying as much as $12 for a dozen. [Again, what were they doing with the things?]

But the farmers faced a marketing problem. First, ahuacate was too hard for Americans to pronounce. [ /ˌawǝˈkæti/ would have been a natural nativization of the Spanish.]

Worse, it was the Aztec word for testicle, named for its shape and reputation as an aphrodisiac [This is a pretty stunning confusion about the Aztec source, but it’s both intricate and popular, so I’ll save it for a later Avocado Chronicle; watch this space]. Then there was the other unappealing name: “alligator pear.” [Etymological note below.]

The farmers came up with a new name: avocado. They informed dictionary publishers of the change — and that the plural was spelled “avocados,” not “avocadoes” — and named their own group the California Avocado Association. [The lexicographic side of this story seems to be a total invention, a piece of etymythology; etymological comments below. In addition, that’s not at all the way words get into dictionaries. On the other hand, the account of the founding of the marketing association seems to be accurate.]

The approach worked. Today, [southern] California accounts for nearly 90 percent of all avocados grown in the United States [south Florida and Hawaii have small avocado industries, and Puerto Rico has a more substantial one, but almost entirely serving PR itself]. [The 2006 assessment is accurate as far as it goes, but there’s more to be said; Mexico, not the U.S., is the way big player in the avocado game. More below.]

The marketing association. From the site of the California Avocado Society:

The California Avocado Society, originally named the California Avocado Association, came into being on May 15, 1915 at a meeting held at the Alexandria Hotel in Los Angeles, California. A board of nine volunteer directors was named and bylaws were tentatively formulated.

Currently, the California Avocado Society is still led by an all volunteer board made up of 13 directors from California, as well as six at-large directors from avocado growing areas around the world; Australia, Chile, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Mission Statement: It is the mission of the California Avocado Society to promote efficiency of production and orderly marketing toward assuring long term profitability for the business of avocado growing.

Actual etymology, in some detail. From OED2 (later material from OED3 will follow):

Etymology: < Spanish avocado advocate, substituted by ‘popular etymology’ for the Aztec ahuacatl (Tylor), of which a nearer form in Spanish is [spelled ahuacate or] aguacate [and pronounced [ˌaɣwaˈkate] ]; French aguacat and avocat, in English also avigato and, corruptly, alligator (pear).

The fruit of a West Indian tree (Persea [americana]); a large pear-shaped fruit, called also alligator pear… [1st cite 1697 in form avogato; 1764 avocato; 1829 abbogada pears; 1860 avocado pear; 1861 avocado or alligator-pear; 1864 avigato]

Major point here: you will see that avocado (and its variants in spelling and pronunciation) had been in use in English to refer to Persea americana for over 200 years before the formation of the California Avocado Whatever. The farmers merely decided to push for avocado as the “official” name of the  food plant, supplanting the Spanish-based loans ahuacate / aguacate and the folk etymologizing alligator pear. It looks to me like English speakers had already made their choice centuries before, in favor of avocado, with alligator pear as a folksy alternative. No point in calling the dictionaries; they already had it.

Alligators and pears. Alligator is a folk-etymological, eggcornish variant of one or more of the Spanish-derived English names for the vegetable, roughly similar to sparrow grass for asparagus — except that asparagus supplies a genus, or class, name (grass) in itself (and asparagus is in fact grass-like, though not actually a grass), while alligator as a vegetable name on its own cries out for supplementation with a genus name, preferably something from the world of edibles. On the basis of shape, pear is a good choice.

Actually, alligator is a pretty good choice for the first element in a name for what was, in the 17th and 18th centuries, an exotic vegetable — alligator having appeared in the 15th and 16th centuries as the name of an exotic creature (OED3 (Sept. 2012) on the etymology: < Spanish el lagarto <  el the + lagarto lizard (13th cent.) (with many variant spellings)). The cites in the OED3 entry for the noun alligator pear ‘an avocado’:

1696 H. Sloane Catal. Plantarum in Jamaica 186 The Avocado or Allegator Pear-tree.

1764 J. Grainger Sugar-cane  i. 8 The avocato, avocado, avigato, or, as the English corruptly call it, alligator-pear.

1817 J. Williamson Med. & Misc. Observ. W. India Islands I. 84 Wormy complaints are common, on account of the improper use of fruit, not yet ripened, such as the avocado or alligator pear.

1930 Z. Fitzgerald in  Sat. Evening Post 17 May 118/4 I spent most of my time in my room, washing down quantities of spring onions and alligator pears with California Bordeaux.

2010 San Francisco Chron. (Nexis) 8 Aug. k1 Main courses included a griddled trout $17 with an alligator pear and smoky corn relish that covered the bottom of the plate.

In any case, alligator pear is not a subsective compound — alligator pears are not pears — but instead is resembloid, like custard apple (Annona reticulata, not a Malus) and Osage orange or hedge apple as names for Maclura pomifera (neither a Citrus nor a Malus).

Southern California as a source of avocados. The 2006 avocado story tells us that

Today, California accounts for nearly 90 percent of all avocados grown in the United States.

Big whoops for California, as an alternative to Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico as sources of avocados. But as an alternative to other countries, all of the United States comes well down on the list. From Wikipedia:

Avocado production is important to the economy of Mexico with the country being the world’s largest producer of the crop. Mexico supplies 45 percent of the international avocado market. Of the 57 avocado producing countries, the other major producers are Dominican Republic, Peru, Colombia, and Indonesia in that order. [In 2017 the USA was 10th, according to the Statista site.]

Even if we restrict ourselves to avocados consumed in the US, Mexico is clearly the prime source, with the US maybe in the 3rd position, after the Dominican Republic (this from a quick view of the statistical sites). Thank Mexico for your guac.

4 Responses to “The Avocado Chronicles: 2 etymology and etymythology”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I had always assumed (by deduction, but without actual evidence) that “alligator pear” was a natural description of a pear-shaped fruit with a wrinkly (and hence somewhat alligator-like) skin. Your explanation does not explicitly contradict this idea, but at least strongly suggests that it has no basis in fact.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      None of my sources suggested that the wrinkly skin of the alligator was a motivating factor in the history of the expression alligator pear, but I don’t see why it couldn’t be viewed as a contributing factor to the phonological development.

  2. Sim Aberson Says:

    “Alligator pear” is commonly used in South Florida and the Caribbean. Caribbean and Florida avocados have very smooth skin and are bright green. The only place with native alligators and avocados both is Florida. It’s interesting that the first reference to alligator pears in the OED is Jamaica, where alligators don’t live.

    I’m not sure what any of this says about the relationship between alligator and alligator pears.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      The suggestion is that alligators got in there mostly phonologically, possibly with some contribution of their exoticness.

      But once you have the expression, it’s just an alternative name for the thing, and different communities will tend to favor one or the other, usually for historical reasons or just by accident. DARE has the textual cites (including the variant holy-ghost pear, in a 1900 plant names volume), and then a few scattered examples from 1966-67 fieldworker interviews (under “fruits that grow wild”), from FL, IL, and HI, with one HI respondent noting that alligator pear had been their regular term but that avocado had largely displaced it.

      Other alligator X compounds have the first element alluding to the texture and appearance of alligator hide, the size and ferocity of alligators, or the prominent occurrence of alligators in steamy swamp land.

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