“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. This phrase was first recorded in the 1860s, when it is said to be an old saying from Pembrokeshire in Wales. The original phrase was, ‘”Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.” In the 19th century and early 20th, the phrase evolved to “an apple a day, no doctor to pay” and “an apple a days sends the doctor away,” while the phrasing now commonly used was first recorded in 1922.
So what does this phrase actually mean? Well its clear isn’t it. It means that eating an apple a day (one of these fruits on the picture below) is good for your health.
But if you have said “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” before the mid of the 17th century, the meaning of the phrase wouldn’t have been so clear at all. This is because the word apple before the mid 17th century had a quite a different meaning.
The English etymological dictionary says this about the word apple:
apple (n.) – from Old English æppel meaning apple or any kind of fruit; fruit in general. In Middle English and as late as 17c., it was a generic term for all fruit other than berries but including nuts.
The fact that the word apple meant “all fruit other than berries but including nuts” is very interesting and could be the clue to the real etymologies of both the word apple and the word berry.
Let me explain what I mean:
The English etymological dictionary says that the English word apple comes from Middle English appel, from Old English æppel, from Proto-Germanic *ap(a)laz, from Proto-Indo-European *ab(e)l, *h₂ébl̥, *h₂ebōl.
The words derived from this (obviously still not clear) PIE root are found in Celtic, Germanic, Baltic and Slavic languages and in Italic but not Latin or Ancient Greek:
Old Prussian: woble, wabelcke
Old Czech: jablo
Old Polish: jabło
Other Slavic languges use diminutive of *ablo + ko
Old East Slavic: jablŭko, ablŭko, abloko
Ukrainian: jábluko, jablyka
Old Church Slavonic: ablŭko
Macedonian: jábolko, jabolka
Serbo-Croatian: jabuka, jabuko
Upper Sorbian: jabłuko
Lower Sorbian: jabłuko
Old Irish: uball
Scottish Gaelic: ubhal
Old English: æppel
Old Frisian: appel
Saterland Frisian: Appel
West Frisian: apel
Old Saxon: appel, appul, apl
Low German: Appel, Äppel
Old Dutch: *appel
Old High German: apful, aphul, afful
Yiddish: עפּל (epl)
Old Norse: epli
Norwegian: Bokmål: eple, Nynorsk: eple
Old Danish: æplæ
Crimean Gothic: apel
Oscan: Abella (the name of a city in Campania which Vergil calls malifera, i.e. “apple-bearing”) – usually dismissed as a borrowing from a northern language and I would agree that this is true.
So all the Celtic, Germanic, Baltic and Slavic languages have the word for apple which is basically exactly the same. But interestingly, the English etymological dictionary says that “the exact relation and original sense of these words is uncertain”…
So what could have been the original sense of the root word of all these words and what was that root word anyway? Well to figure that out we need to think about why was apple the word that in Middle English meant “all fruit other than berries but including nuts”.
Wiki page about the proposed PIE root for all these words says that there are several indications that the word for “apple” did not belong to the oldest layer of the Indo-European protolanguage because of these reasons:
1. the word is limited to the West Indo-European languages (except for Pashayi wālī, perhaps < Proto-Indic *abalikā-)
2. it contains the phoneme */b/, which had marginal distribution in PIE
3. it somewhat resembles the South European word for “apple” (PIE or pseudo-PIE *méh₂lom: Latin “mālum” meaning apple, Ancient Greek μῆλον (mêlon) and alternative Doric μᾶλον (mâlon) meaning apple, any fruit from a tree).
Hittite cognate is (šam(a)lu-, “apple”), which renders the original PIE form as *šamlu (“apple”). The original cluster *-ml- remained as such in Anatolian but yielded *-bl- in the other IE languages with otherwise rare/non-existing phoneme */b/. Such a development is not attested anywhere else, however, and with the only sound that *h₂ébōl and (šam(a)lu-, “apple”) have in common being */l/ the connection remains dubious. The Hittite word is furthermore identical to Hattic (šawat, “apple, apple tree”) with the usual Hattic /t/ = Hittite /l/ correspondence, though it could easily be a borrowing from Hattic rather than vice versa.
In the end the wiki page says:
This all points that the word entered the Indo-European speech continuum some time after the dissolution of the parent language most likely as a borrowing from Semitic…
This is actually not “most likely”. No one really knows where the word apple comes from. That the word apple comes from Semitic languages is just a proposal put forward by Theo Vennemann (1998) in his article Andromeda and the Apples of the Hesperides where Vennemann attempted to link apple to Semitic, particularly, the South-Eastern Semitic languages of Ethiopia. After an introduction, sketching his the theory regarding the languages of prehistoric Europe north of the Pyrenees and the Alps, Vennemann proposed that the reconstructed IE *abal could be cognate with the modern Ethiopic Ge’ez ‚abāl, Tigrè habāl, Tigrinya ‚abal, Amharic abal and Gurage abal, allegedly meaning genitals. According to him, this word was used to mean apple in Semitic and it was borrowed into Germanic with this meaning. The meaning apple was subsequently lost in all Semitic languages except in the named Ethiopic ones where it was replaced, due to “an awkward metaphoric shift”, by a new one – genitals, via the association of the external form of apples with testicles. However Geʻez ʼabāl means “flesh, piece of flesh, member of body, member (of a community), limb, genitals, self, person” (thus Leslau 1989; basically following Dillmann 1865). Neither in Geʻez nor in other Ethiopic languages does it mean “apple”, or indeed any fruit. The semantic development flesh > genitals seems straightforward, so there is no reason to postulate a supposed older meaning “apple”.
I would argue that apple is definitely a very old Indoeuropean word and not the borrowing from Semitic languages. I would agree that the word probably developed when the steppe dwellers from eastern Europe arrive into Central European forests. I also believe that the root meaning of the word apple was “what fell off”. But in order to understand how can word apple be derived from the verb to fall we need to look in more detail at edible plants which grew in Europe at the time when this word probably arose (the end of the 4th – beginning of the 3rd millennium bc, the arrival of the tumulus culture into Europe).
Although not often thought of as a major center of crop diversity, the European continent harbors rich wild gene pools of many crop species. This is the list of the native European edible plant species. The list includs: many types of Oaks (Quercus), hazelnuts (Corylus), beech nuts (Fagus spp.), chestnuts (Castanea spp.); cereals, particularly oats (Avena) and rye (Secale); food legumes such as pea (Pisum) and lupins (Lupinus); fruit crops, such as apple (Malus), pear (Pyrus), plums and cherries (Prunus), grape vine (Vitis), raspberries and blackberries (Rubus), olive (Olea) and fig (Ficus); vegetables—including lettuce (Lactuca), carrot (Daucus), parsnip (Pastinaca), cabbage and other brassicas (Brassica), beet (Beta), celery, celeriac (Apium), leek (Allium), asparagus (Asparagus), salsify (Tragopogon), and artichoke (Cynara). The wild inventory is also very rich in the assemblage of pot herbs, condiments, and aromatic plants such as: caper (Capparis), mints (Mentha), marjoram (Origanum), lavender (Lavandula), thyme (Thymus), sage (Salvia), rosemary (Rosmarinus), mustards (Sinapis, Brassica), horseradish (Armoracia), water cress (Nasturtium), chives and leek (Allium), fennel (Foeniculum), caraway (Carum), that have their close wild relatives in Europe.
So these are the plants that our European ancestors had at their disposal in Late Neolithic and Early Chalcolithic times when we see the arrival of the first steppe Curgan people into Central Europe. If we look at these edible plants we see that some of them have edible roots and leaves (vegetables), some have edible seeds (cereals) and some have edible fruits and nuts and acorns. The last group of edible plants can be divided into two groups based on what happens with their ripe fruits, nuts or acorns. Basically we can divide these plants based on whether their fruits fall off when they are ripe or whether they stay on branches even when they are ripe.
All nut, oak and beech trees shed their nuts and acorns, meaning that they fall on the ground when ripe.
All heavy fruit trees with heavy fruits like apples, pairs, plums also shed their fruits, meaning that they fall on the ground when ripe. Sour cherries do the same while sweet cherries i am not sure about.
All the fruit plants whose fruits stay on the branches even when they are ripe are the fruits we call berries. Here are some examples:
Strawberry or earth berry as it was known in the past, as its Old English name was eorðberge meaning earth berry:
So all the nuts and acorns and all the fruits except berries fall off when they are ripe. Compare this with the old meaning of the word apple: “all fruit other than berries but including nuts”. Do you think that this is a coincidence? I don’t think so. I believe that this is the clue which will lead us to the original meaning of the root word from which the word apple developed. And I believe that this root word was Slavic word “pal” which has an English cognate”fall”, as in fall of the branch when ripe. Basically all the fruits, nuts and acorns which fall of the tree when ripe were called “the ones that fall off”.
In Serbian we have the word “pal” which means fell. From this root we have these derived words:
“spal” (masculine) and “spalo” (neuter) meaning “fell off something”
“opal” (masculine) and “opalo” (neuter which is used for things like fruits, nuts, acorns) meaning “fell off something onto something”, like fruit fell of the tree onto the ground.
If you add “je”, meaning it is, before “pal” you get “je pal” meaning “it fell”.
If you add “je”, meaning it is, before “opal” you get “it fell off the tree and on the ground”.
In Serbian we also have word “bal” meaning to fell by force. From this root we have these derived words:
“obal” meaning to knock down, to fell.
In English this would be “of fall” today’s fall off. Compare opal, obal and of fall with the all the above old words for apple, especially the oldest one. Do you see any similarity? Is it possible that the word for apple comes from the word to fall off? So lets see if this is possible based on old versions of the words for “fall”.
The English etymological dictionary says this about the word “fall”:
fall (v.) – from Old English feallan (past tense feoll, past participle feallen) “to drop from a height; fail, decay, die,” from Proto-Germanic *fallan (cognates: Old Frisian falla, Old Saxon fallan, Dutch vallen, Old Norse falla, Old High German fallan, German fallen, absent in Gothic), from PIE root *pōl-, *spōl- (“to fall”). Cognates: Armenian p’ul “downfall,” Lithuanian puola “to fall,” Old Prussian aupallai “finds,” literally “falls upon”), Ancient Greek σφάλλω (sphállō, “bring down, destroy, cause to stumble, deceive”).
This is very interesting for two reasons. Firstly the etymological dictionary shows that the old root for “fall” used to be “pol”. Secondly it doesn’t even mention the Slavic word “pal” as a cognate. Regardless this shows that fall (or the old version pol, pal) could have been the root of the word apple through o (of, od) + po(a)l = from + fell. Basically apple means any fruit, nut or acorn which falls off the tree when its ripe.
Do you remember the Latin word “mālum” meaning apple and Ancient Greek μῆλον (mêlon) and alternative Doric μᾶλον (mâlon) meaning apple, any fruit from a tree? I believe that they also both come from the same root pal (fell). M, P, B, V, F are interchangeable consonants which all developed from the same undifferentiated MPBVF sound. All these consonants can be produced with you mouth in the same position and by slightly varying the pressure of your lips. This is why they are often change in various languages and dialects. People hear these sounds and reproduce them in different ways. Of course this is not a random change and is usually always the same as we go from one language to another. Like apple (Germanic) ablo (Slavic). It is quite possible that in Ancient Greek and Latin pal, pol (fall, fell) became mal, mel through change P ==> M. So they would also then have the same meaning: fruits that fall off when they are ripe. This same root will explain the Hittite šam(a)lu can also be derived from this root as sa + pal = from + fell meaning: fruits that fall off when they are ripe.
That it is possible to derive the etymology of the word for fruit from the act of falling off the tree when ripe, action associated with the fruit, can be seen from the etymology for the Latin word “poma” meaning apple which is nominative plural of “pomum” which means any type of fruit (applied to apples, cherries, nuts, berries, figs, dates, etc.) and a fruit tree.
This Latin word is said to be of an uncertain origin. Possibly from an obscure Mediterranean language, or an evolution of Old Latin roots *po-emo (“picked off”), possible variants including *po-omo and *pe-omo.
The descendants are found in all Romanic languages and English where the words mean apple, fruit or tree:
Portuguese: pomo, poma
Sicilian: pummu, puma
So we see that the same logic was used in Latin for naming apples and all the other tree fruits based on the action related to fruit, this time the action of picking fruit. The only difference is that Latin doesn’t distinguish between the fruit that falls and the fruit that doesn’t.
I believe that the final proof that the word for apple was derived from the word for falling, can be found in Sanskrit
स्वादुफल svAduphala = svadu + phala = sweet + fruit
फल – प्रभेद phala – prabheda = phala + prabheda = fruit + species
सेवफल sevaphala – seva (zeva) + phala = enjojment, reverence, worship, dear, precious… + fruit
So the Sanskrit word for fruit “phala” in Serbian literally means fell (feminine). Apple and all the other old Evroasian fruits are feminine words (all end in “a”) in Serbian: jabuka – apple, kruška – pear, šljiva – plum, dunja – quince, trešnja – cherry, višnja – sour cherry, breskva – peach, kajsija – appricot, jagoda – strawbery, kupina – blackbery…. Interesting…So It is possible that this word is truly ancient and that is found in Eastern Indoeuropean languages as well in its oldest form.
As a final proof that the word apple, meaning fruit which falls off the tree is derived from the word pal meaning to fall is this. In English the word fruit means “the sweet and fleshy product of a tree or other plant that contains seed and can be eaten as food.” In Serbian and other Slavic languages, the equivalent word is “plod” which comes from pal + od = fell + from = what fell from the plant. So fruit in Serbian is literally what fell off, from…Plod also means fetus. Now remember the word ber meaning to carry to bear and which in Serbian also means to pick up, to pluck. To bear also means to carry children literally to carry fetus, plod, a fruit of man’s loin…In Serbian and other Slavic languages the word for being pregnant is “b(e)remenit”. Look at Sanskrit “bhariman” meaning family. In the old times women gave birth standing up, crouching down or standing on all four like animals do. The lying on your back with your feet in the air birth is a very new invention. So in those olden days, the baby fell out of the woman’s womb, in the same way baby animals fall out of their mother’s wombs and they are picked up by the midwife or a husband or whoever is delivering the baby. Hence pal od = plod..The Serbian word “plodan” means fertile. The word comes from plod = fruit + gives, has a lot, literally what gives, has a lot fruit and even more literally what gives, has a lot things that fall off…
Now lets have a look again at the old meaning of the word apple: “all fruit other than berries but including nuts”. If apples are all the fruits that fall when ripe and then you just have to pick them. If apples are all fruits and nuts (and acorns) except berries. If berries are fruits that don’t fall off when they are ripe. If the word apple comes from the word for to fall off (opal, opol, obal). Is it possible then that the word berry comes from the word to pluck off? After all you have to pluck the berries off the branches to eat them because they don’t fall of when they are ripe. Let’s have a look at the word berry.
English word berry has cognates in all Germanic languages:
Old English: berige
Middle English: beriye, berie
Scots: berie, bery, berrie, berry
Old Saxon: beri, winber
Middle Low German: bere
Low German: Beer
Old Dutch: beri
Middle Dutch: bere
Dutch: bère, bèr (dialectal)
Old High German: beri
Middle High German: bere
Old Norse: ber
When it comes to etymology of the word berry and its Germanic cognates
Berry from Old English berie, from Proto-Germanic *basjom which is of unknown origin.
Wiktionary says this:
From Middle English berye, from Old English beriġe, from Proto-Germanic *bazją’ from Proto-Indo-European *bʰes- (“to blow, chew, rub”). For the semantic development, compare Old Church Slavonic гроуша (gruša, “pear”), from гроушити (grušiti, “to break, destroy”); Latin pirum (“pear”), from *peis- (“to stick, pound”).
What wiktionary says is very interesting because again we have the name of the type of fruit being derived from an action performed on that fruit. But “to blow, chew, rub”???? What does blowing and rubbing have to do with berries? And why call only berries the chewy fruits? This makes no sense. What is the main thing that distinguishes berries from apples (other fruits, nuts and acorns)? The fact that they don’t fall off the tree when they are ripe. So if you want to eat apples you wait until they fall off and then you know they are ripe and you can pick them up and eat them. But with berries you have to pluck them from their stems. If you can easily pluck them, they are ripe and can be eaten. So if there was an action that would define berry it is plucking. If there only was a word that means pluck and sounds like berry. Well there is. The English word bear which means to carry, to bear. This word comes from Middle English beren, from Old English beran, from Proto-Germanic *beraną, from Proto-Indo-European *bʰer-. This word has cognates in pretty much all Indoeuropean languages including Slavic languages and the meaning is always the same: to carry, to bear. But in Slavic languages this word has additional meaning: to pick up, to pluck off, to take. In Serbian we have these words derived from the root “ber”:
berač – fruit or vegetable picker. Implies that the fruits and vegetables are plucked off the plant.
berba – picking of fruits, vegetables and corn (maize). Corn (Maze), unlike other grains which are harvested by cutting, were originally harvested by plucking corn cobs off the plant.
branje, beranje – picking of fruits, vegetables and corn
Branje – (dialectic, Pobori, Montenegro) cooked green leafy vegetables, literally plucked leaves.
Now in Serbian, if someone asks you: “how do I collect the berries” and you want to tell him: “pluck them” you would say “beri” meaning “pluck them”.
I think that this is very interesting. It means that the word root “ber” had three meanings “to pick up, to pluck off, to take” which have been preserved only in Slavic languages. And that with this meaning the word berry means exactly what it should: the fruits you need to pluck of the plant, because they don’t fall off when they are ripe. Did this meaning once exist in Germanic languages? Or was the word berry in Germanic languages somehow derived from the Slavic variant of the word bear which means not only to carry but also to pick up, pluck, pick off?
So now we have apples, the fruits, nuts and acorns that fall when ripe and we have a possible etymology for the word apple from the verb to fall. And we have berries which are fruit that don’t fall off when they are ripe, and we have a possible etymology for the word berry from the verb to pluck.
I think this is very very interesting…What do you think?