Etymology of Beans, Part Two

Homemade hamburger buns! First attempt. Next one will have more sesame seeds!

Time to go back down the etymology rabbit hole, as promised!

I admittedly did not dig deep enough last time, but I hope to rectify that with some guidance from Ken Albala’s example.

Also, sorry for the wait! I threw the husband a raucous birthday barbecue last weekend and then came down with some nasty bug as a reward for all my hard work. Unfortunately, no beans were involved in the barbecue (though I do now wonder what smoked beans would taste like, or how one would even achieve such a dish), but there were plenty of other tasty foods that I’ll hopefully get to show off in pictures over the next few posts!

Ok, back on topic.

Last we spoke, I resolved to do a deeper dive of bean etymology, starting with looking into the words that Ken Albala had written of in his book. Let’s start with legume. First off, the English word legume can mean the fruit or seed of leguminous plants (peas or beans), the pod containing the fruit or seed of leguminous plants, or the plants themselves. The English word legume comes from the French word légume (from the earlier legun), which has now (since around 1827, it seems) come to mean any cooking vegetable. The French word, in turn, comes from the Latin word legumen, meaning the same as the English legume. It is also speculated that the Latin legumen is connected to the Latin legere, which means to gather. As Albala points out in his book, it’s not a reach to think that the word ultimately began as a descriptor of how the beans were obtained. Despite their later large role in agriculture, they began as an easy-to-gather food for peoples who relied on being able to hunt and gather all they ate.

Not only was that a lot more informative than my previous attempt at etymological research, but it was actually way more fun, too. Watching the historical transformation of a food word through time is nearly as fun as watching the transformation of the food itself!

Next, let’s look at pulse. I started with legume because it’s (I think) a much more commonly used word that people reading are more likely to have encounter. I personally had not seen the word pulse (or at least don’t remember having seen it) used as a synonym for legume until reading Albala’s book. It apparently has a very narrow definition in this context: “Any annual legume yielding from 1 to 12 grains or seeds of variable size, shape and colour within a pod, and used as food for humans or animals.”

It also has a longer history as a word, possibly stretching back to the Proto-Indo-European language, the hypothetical (thanks, history!) common ancestor of all Indo-European languages.

It seems that the origin of the word pulse is intimately linked with the use of beans in porridge. The English word pulse comes from the Latin puls, for meal or porridge, which is probably from the Ancient Greek póltos, also for porridge (specifically, porridge made from flour), which, in turn, is from a Proto-Indo-European word pel, for dust or flour.

So this word for beans that I’d never encountered before not only describes a common usage of beans, but the history of the word itself is a testament to how long humans have been using beans in that way. This makes sense, considering that we have evidence of people cooking beans over 10,000 years ago.

Probably not what the Ancient Greeks meant, but I can kind of see the bean shape…
Author:Franklin Vera Pacheco / Franklin.vp at en.wikipedia

Finally, let’s take a look at the word phaseolus. Since 1753, Phaseolus has been used as the name of the genus of the Fabaceae (legume) family containing New World beans. Before then, it was used as a name for the black-eyed pea, and Old World bean. The word is borrowed from the Latin phaselusmeaning a bean with an edible pod. It could also mean a light boat, similar to a canoe, that is similar in shape to a bean pod.

So! Etymology! A lot more work went into the research this time, but I think the results are also a lot more interesting!

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