Does the Greek word for watermelon, karpouzi, come from Ancient Greek?

Now, the notion that karpouzi ‘watermelon’ would derive from karpos ‘fruit’ is so preposterous, the only mentions of it you’ll see online are in a comment on a Greek blog article on karpouzi ( Το ελληνικό πεπόνι με τα πολλά ονόματα : “Is it out of the question that karpouzi should be a Rückwanderer? Just putting it out there”), and in a mock etymology over at Καινούργιες λέξεις ΙΙΙ . Karpouzi is so obviously Turkish in origin, it hurts.

In fact, I embarked on this question-and-answer, because I pointed out in a comment:…

Sometimes linguists get their predictions wrong.

Νικόλαος Κονεμένος was one of the many scholars who weighed in on the Greek Language Question. (At least, I hope it was him that said this, and not Ελισαίος Γιαννίδης.) He confidently predicted that, in line with the mass extirpation of Turkish words from Greek that was underway, karpouzi would be replaced by the Corfiot word χειμωνικό, ‘winter plant’.

… That has not happened to my knowledge.

To which Ali Berat replied:

Karpuz itself isn’t Greek? I checked the etymological dictionary and

karpóō καρπόω. “To fruit, to crop” in old Greek.

… And that sent me on some searches, including

It was a fun voyage, and now you get to go along with me.

First of all, what’s a Rückwanderer? A Rückwanderer is a term in historical linguistics, for a word that gets borrowed from language A to language B, evolves, and then gets borrowed back from B to A. Like much in Historical Linguistics, it’s a German word. Wikipedia in English lists it under the more boring heading Reborrowing.

There aren’t that many instances of Rückwanderers back into English; anime < Japanese anime < animation is probably the best known one, and Japanese is going to be the source for most of them. But Rückwanderers are of immense interest to Greeks, and Greek has its own, rather elegant name for them: αντιδάνειο, “counter-loan”. Greeks like Rückwanderers, because they show that some of those horrid foreign words that Greek has been deluged with are originally Greek after all.

So as you’d expect, Greek linguists have invested a lot of effort in identifying Rückwanderers in Greek. But I hadn’t noticed karpouzi as one of them. Nor do Greek etymological dictionaries bother going any further back than “Turkish karpuz”.

So what’s going on?

The etymological dictionary Ali consulted, I’m assuming, is the Nişanyan: karpuz, which gives Persian xarbūz ~ Greek karpos. The dictionary online is abridged, but you can see what looks to be its echo in karpuz – Wiktionary, the Turkish etymology there:

From Ottoman Turkish قارپوز‏ (karpuz, “melon”), from Persian خربز‏ (xarboz, “melon”) and likely influenced by Greek καρπός (karpós, “fruit, grain”), both from Ancient Greek καρπός (karpós, “fruit, grain, produce”), from Proto-Indo-European *kerp– (“pluck, harvest”), from *(s)ker– (“to cut”). Cognate with English harvest.

If you’re wondering, btw, karpos has also ended up in English, as carpal, the adjective for wrists (e.g. carpal tunnel syndrome). The wrist in Greek is called the “fruit” of the hand.

The etymology seems to be saying that xarboz is from Greek karpos, that xarboz was borrowed into Turkish as karpuz, and that the initial k is because it was re-influenced by Greek karpos.

Well, that’s one theory. It pays to click the links in Wiktionary: the Persian entry for xarboz says something quite different.

خربزه – Wiktionary

The Persian word may refer to ‘melon’ now rather than ‘watermelon’; watermelon in Persian is hindewāne “Indian fruit”, from Pashto, or battīx indi “Indian melon”. (And inevitably, there’s a petition online to replace the word hindwana in Pashto with islamnama: islamise the language of pushto and replace the word “hindwana” by “islamnama” ).

But the word xarboz has spread very far indeed from Persia: as Wiktionary lists, it is used in East Slavic, Georgian, Middle Armenian, Turkic, and all languages of the Balkans, all meaning ‘watermelon’ (except in Ukrainian, where it means ‘pumpkin’). It has also spread to Arabic, Sanskrit, and Marathi, where it means ‘melon’. So the word shows up from Latvian to Marathi, and from Greek to Kazakh.

Now, where does xarboz come from?

I’m not sure, but like I said, I assume Sevan Nişanyan thinks it comes from Greek. (This is unrelated to astonishing news I’ve just found out from Wikipedia, that Nişanyan has just escaped prison and is seeking asylum in Athens: Detained author in Turkey escapes from prison and tweets: ‘The.)

Nişanyan rejects the account that Persianists have given: Paul Horn’s Etymological Dictionary of Modern Persian… . Horn derives it from the Persian for “donkey-cucumber”, meaning “ginormous cucumber”. Horn gives xarbōǰīnā, which is the missing link, as a Pahlavi form: the Pahlavi-Pazand Glossary he cites has melon as khar-buzak, but cucumber as bōǰīnā.

Nişanyan rejects this account as a folk etymology: that would mean that Persians heard a foreign term, like, oh, Greek karpos, tried to make sense of it, and came up with “donkey-cucumber”.

And of course, anything is possible. But for that to happen, Persians would have had to find out about melons from Greeks. Hold that thought.

The third account is neither of the above: Paul Pelliot, Wiktionary goes on to say, claimed that the form is to be explained as Sanskrit trapusa, “the fruit of the colocynth” (Citrullus colocynthis), again with the form mangled into “donkey-cucumber” by popular etymology. And as it turns out, tarboze does mean “watermelon” in some Persian dialects; and the Marathi form given as derived from Sanskrit खर्बूज (kharbūja) is in fact टरबूज (ṭarbūj). In Pashto, tarbuja means watermelon, while xarbuja means musk-melon.

So. Three theories. Persian (Horn). Greek, with Persian folk etymology (Nişanyan). Sanskrit, with Persian folk etymology (Pelliot).

How can you tell which one’s right?

You tell which one’s right by tracing the history of the watermelon, and the melon.

The watermelon is native to southern Africa, and was known in Ancient Egypt from the 2nd millennium BC. Numbers 11:5 names them, אֲבַטִּיחִ ’ăḇaṭṭiḥ, as one of the fruit of Egypt that the Israelites miss in the desert. Citrullus colocynthis, the colocynth is a sister plant to the watermelon; the two diverged from a common ancestor.

(Remember Pashto battīx indi “Indian melon”? بطيخ baṭṭīḵ is Arabic for melon and watermelon, and related to Hebrew ăḇaṭṭiḥ. It’s also where the Cypriot Greek word for watermelon comes from: patixa.)

The colocynth is native to the Mediterranean and Asia, and it is the plant Pelliot appealed to in his etymology: it’s trapusa in Sanskrit.

Watermelons, as the English term shows, are regarded by people as a kind of melon. The Romans, for that matter, regarded melons and all cucurbitaceae as a kind of cucumber (cucumis); the Polyglot Vegetarian cites Pliny.

Watermelons are called Indian in Persia, which tells you that they came from the east to Persia. Watermelons were cultivated in India in the 7th century, and India was clearly one place that watermelons were disseminated from; Spanish and Galician sandía come from Arabic سِنْدِية sindiyyah, “from the Sindh”, and watermelons were cultivated in Cordoba in 961. But if Persia was the place that watermelons were disseminated from, and Persians used to also call them melons, then the Persian word for melon would have accompanied the watermelon in its travels from Persia to Russia and Turkey and Georgia.

Berthold Laufer, in… p. 443ff, gives an account of the dissemination of the watermelon. “Indian Melon” tells him the watermelon is not indigenous to Persia; and he too suspects donkey-cucumber is a folk etymology. But he’s prepared to accept a migration of the fruit from Persia to Turkic to China. He thinks the t of tarbuz, which is present in Mongol and “Turki” (Turkmen?), seems to him to be a Turkic-specific dissimilation. (He presumably wrote this before Pelliot’s proposal.) From what he can tell, the words for watermelon in Sanskrit are all recent coinages.

The Chinese term 西瓜 xíguá for watermelon means “western melon”, and specifically, from Turkestan, as its mention in the New History of the Five Dynasties states. It had reached China by the 10th century.

One scholar has proposed that the Chinese word reflects Ancient Greek sikya “cucumber”, and Laufer laughs it off as a philological achievement. It’s not as absurd as it looks, though, given that the Romans conflated melons and cucumbers (and likely so did the Persians). Laufer is quite sure the watermelon was unknown to the ancient Greeks, though pepōn ‘ripe [cucumber]’ did become the word for melon, may have been used in that sense in Hippocrates — if it wasn’t referring to the gourd instead—and was certainly used in that sense in the Septuagint translation of Numbers 11:5. (In fact mēlopepōn ‘apple ripe [cucumber]’ is the origin of English melon.)

The dissemination path for the watermelon seems to be:

  • Namibia > … > Egypt > Israel > … {Iran, India}
    • Iran > India (Persian names, post-Sanskrit names)
    • India > Iran (“Indian melon”)
  • India > Andalus (“from the Sindh”)
  • Iran > Armenia, Georgia, East Slavic
  • Iran > Turkic > China, Ottoman Empire

So where does that leave us?

(See what I did there? Questions as subheadings.)

The least likely account is Nişanyan’s. There’s an off chance that the watermelon was known to Ancient Greeks, and it was likely known by Roman times. But Nişanyan requires not only that knowledge of the watermelon came from Greek-speakers, but that Greek speakers used a word as generic as karpos to refer to it. And karpos is as generic as it gets: it is fruit as in fruitful, and it doesn’t just refer to fruit from a tree: wheat is a karpos too, and so are nuts. Greek and Latin did have a generic word for Cucurbitaceae, which they would have applied to watermelon; that word was the word for cucumber. That’s not the word that made it into Persian (and it’s not plausible that it leaped from Greece straight to China).

(Oh, English has a generic word for Cucurbitaceae too. We call them gourds.)

The native Persian etymon, “donkey-cucumber”, is suspicious; not for the “cucumber” bit—it’s what people unfamiliar with melons call gourds; but for the Just-So nature of it: it’s the kind of word you would find as a folk etymology. On the other hand, Persia is closer to Egypt than India is; you’d expect they’d find out about it first. And Persian is the origin for the vastest dissemination of the word.

But the Indian proposed etymology makes more sense, if anything: the colocynth (trapusa) is the wild counterpart to the watermelon. And the watermelon clearly did travel from India to (back to?) Persia, as the “Indian melon”. It’s uneconomical, but certainly feasible that the watermelon bounced backwards and forwards between Iran and India in various cultivars.

So, weak vote in favour of the Sanskrit derivation.

Greeks should not be too dismayed that they cannot claim karpouzi as their own though. As a consolation:

Greece > Hungary: görögdinnye “Greek melon”.

EDIT: Dimitra Triantafyllidou’s comment is worth appending in full:

Ok, I have a couple of thoughts and alternate scenarios in mind for the mythical journey of my favourite fruit.

First, National Geographic (The 5,000-Year Secret History of the Watermelon )says that the plant originated in NE Africa and was cultivated for its water, not its taste. Ancient water-melons were rather bitter, but in the dry desert they bitter watermelons would have tasted like honey. E.g. to the Israelite in the desert. But since neither Greece, nor Asia Minor are quite as water deprived as Egypt it would not have spread among Greeks to the point of acquiring a name.

No matter where it first grew, the fruit might have travelled overland from the horn of Africa or the Sina to the Arab peninsula and over to Persia and India (the way H. sapiens did).

Or, it might have travelled in a ship. At one point the Sultanate of Oman controlled all those lands.

What I mean to say is that there in the first case there are deserts and caravans and in the second there is sea commerce. People have been wandering to-and -from on those paths since forever. A water melon is easily transported clean water. Plus, you just spit the seed and a new one grows in every port.

Therefore, it might have ended up in India without staying overlong and making a name for itself in Persia. Up to Hellenistic times it was still more like a coolant and a diuretic (much like the bitter cucumber in Greek traditional medicine), than a dessert.

And then, suddenly in the 2nd c. AD they start to become dessert but up until the 5th c. they are orange, not red. Much like … melons. It could be that the Indian word coming to the East together with a new better (sweeter) and red variety simply took over one of the meanings of the cognates of Hebrew ăḇaṭṭiḥ, and now there were two words for melon and watermelon.

I’m pretty sure that the moment somebody grew the first sweet, red watermelons the plants would have spread almost instantaneously throughout the Middle East.

Since this spread was completed by the 10th c. (Spain to China), i.e. when there was still direct contact between Greek speakers and Persian speakers it could be that the Greeks adapted the name to something familiar to their ears. If the Mongols and Turkmen kept the original t- at the beginning, why would the Turks turn h- to k-. Makes no sense.

PS What a great subject for a plant genetics thesis.

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