“There seem to be two commonly used words for the potato in Yiddish, kartofl and bulbe. I know the first comes from German Kartoffel, but where does bulbe come from?”
Although different regions of Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe had different words for potatoes — among them, according to Nahum Stutchkoff’s “Thesaurus of the Yiddish Language,” erdepl, yavkes, barabolye, mandebere, greln, zhemikes, gaydekes, and balabanes — bulbes and kartofl were indeed the two most common. A humorous Yiddish song about bulbes tells us just how basic a staple of the Eastern-European diet they were. Its first stanza goes: Zuntik bulbes, montik bulbes, / Dinstik un mitvokh bulbes, / Donershtik un fraytik bulbes, / Ober shabbes in a noveneh a bulbe kugele. / Zuntik vayter bulbes. That is, “On Sunday potatoes, on Monday potatoes, / on Tuesday and Wednesday potatoes, / on Thursday and Friday potatoes, / But on Shabbes, for a change, potato kugel. / On Sunday, potatoes again.”
Yiddish bulbe derives from Lithuanian bulve, “potato,” which makes it one of the relatively few Lithuanian words to have entered general Yiddish speech. The word is essentially the same as English “bulb,” which derives from Latin bulbus, an onion, itself a close cognate of Greek bolbos, a fleshy underground root. (In Polish, too, from which Lithuanian apparently took the word, bulwa simply means “bulb.”) Although botanically speaking, the potato is not a bulb but a tuber, that is, a fleshy underground stem rather than a root. This is a distinction that, like the Lithuanians, few of us bother to make.
The history of kartofl is a bit more complicated. As Mr. Zlotnik observes, the word comes from German, and my German etymological dictionary says that it is a phonetic corruption of Italian tartufo, which means “truffle” and gives us, via French, our English word for that culinary delicacy. Since both potatoes and truffles grow underground (in terms of price, they have less in common), it’s possible to see a connection. Yet where does tartufo come from?
This brings us back to tubers, for tartufo descends from the Latin term terrae tuber, that is, “a swelling of the earth.” (The literal meaning of Latin tuber, a close cousin of tumor, is a swelling or excrescence.) Rumpimus altricem tenero quae vertice terrae tubera, says the Roman poet Martial, pretending to be a truffle himself, boletis poma secunda sumus. “We who with our tender heads break through mother-earth are truffles, fruits second to the mushroom.” Martial was not slighting the truffle; he simply had a passion for mushrooms, about which he commented, “To send someone silver or gold is easy enough, but sending mushrooms is difficult.”
Potatoes were brought back to Europe by the Spanish after the discovery of the Americas, and different languages found different ways of naming them. From the start, there was considerable confusion between the two totally distinct species of solanum tuberosum, our ordinary white potato, which came from the Andes, and ipamosa batatas, the sweet potato, which the Spanish first discovered in Haiti, in whose native American language of Taìno it was called batata. The Spanish originally used the Taìno word for both solanum tuberosum and ipamosa batatas, but eventually, by a slight phonetic divergence, took to distinguishing between the two by calling the former patata, with a “p” — and it is as patata and batata, the plain potato and the sweet potato, that they are known in Spanish to this day. The French at first adopted this solution but subsequently switched from patate to pomme de terre, “earth apple,” while referring to ipamosa batatas as batate douce, the “sweet batate.” As for the English, who originally called the white potato the “Virginia potato” after the first English colony in which it was planted, they eventually dropped the adjective while adding “sweet,” like the French, to ipamosa batatas.
Patata and batata dolce also became the standard words in Italian. In the north of Italy, however, the potato, which had to be dug up out of the ground like a truffle, was known as a tartufolo, and when it was introduced from Italy into Germany in the late 16th century, this name traveled with it, its initial “t” transformed into a “k.” (Although for a while the Germans also borrowed the French term and alternately called the potato Erdapfel, “earth apple,” this usage was in the end discarded.) From Germany, the potato continued its eastward course into Slavic lands as Polish kartofel, Ukrainian kartoplya and Russian kartoshka.
Because of its hardiness, its ability to withstand cold and its high caloric content, the potato quickly became indispensable to the diet of poor people throughout northern Europe, so much so that when the potato crop failed in Ireland in the 1840s, the result was widespread famine and mass emigration, mostly to the United States. When Yiddish-speaking Jews began flocking to America’s shores several decades later, the immediate cause was pogroms, not famine, but the kartofl or bulbe was as much a part of their everyday fare as the spud (a word, related to “spade,” that originally signified a digging fork for unearthing bulbs and tubers) was for the Irish. And that’s not small potatoes.
Questions for Philologos can be sent to email@example.com