A Truffle, and 10 Words for ‘Potato’

On Language

By Philologos

Published March 02, 2011, issue of March 11, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

“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 philologos@forward.com

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.