Indo-European Root of the Day: Apple


I learned a quite interesting fact last night, and that is that apples originally come from Kazakhstan. I thought about that and ended up with a nice dream about picking apples on a mountain slope in Kazakhstan. And I thought more about the word “apple.” Apple. And I decided, “apple” is one of my all-time favorite words. (My favorite word, coincidentally, is another fruit: “plum.” But that’s another entry altogether.) I like the plural “apples” even better. It’s such a sweet little word, the way it almost coaxes your tongue into a lisp like that at the end. I think I must like the “-pl” sound quite a bit, because it’s also at the heart of my other favorite word “plum.”

So I glanced at my Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (what? You don’t have a copy?) to see where “apple” came from. I found that the IE root of apple is “abel,” and it’s the first word in the dictionary! I love an entry like this, where you find a word that has hardly changed in thousands of years. “Abel” to “apple” is not much of a journey, which is usually the sign of a very important word; sure enough, “abel” doesn’t just mean apple, it means simply “the fruit of a tree.” So originally, our ancestors called all tree fruit “apples.” Isn’t that great? I also like this entry because usually you find a single root that has come to mean a number of different things. In this case, a word that used to mean many things now means just one thing. The only other word related to it is, naturally, “dapple,” which means mottled or blemished, like the skin of an apple (a word used wonderfully by Hopkins in his poem “Pied Beauty”).

I’m still working on what all of this means for Kazakhstan, I have to explore some more and find out what peoples used to live there. I do know it was home to many IE tribes, so I imagine (or like to imagine) that at some point on the Kazakh mountain slopes a transformation took place that has propagated all the way into modern English.

Joseph Shipley concludes the “abel” entry with a great poem excerpt by Leigh Hunt:

Stolen sweets are always sweeter;
Stolen kisses much completer;
Stolen looks are nice in chapels;
Stolen, stolen be your apples.

A bit more on “Indo-European Root of the Day.” I’ve discovered, fairly recently (since I left school) that I really love to find out where words come from and how they morphed over time to what they are today. A good chunk of the world’s languages – English, Germanic, Romance languages, Indian, Iranian, Turkish, Slavic – got their start from a single group of people, the Indo-Europeans or Proto-Indo-Europeans. Over the years philologists and historical linguists have put together a root language – a basic idea of the words/sounds the IE tribes used so many thousands of years ago. Along with that are theories about how the languages got from there to here. Where they split, why they split, where one word ends and another begins. This is why a word like “apple” is so special. It’s thousands of years old, and it’s virtually unchanged over that time. Remarkable.

Anyway, I find this stuff fascinating. I’m always looking up words in my Shipley book to see where they come from. So I thought it would be fun to post some of these findings here and maybe get some other people interested in this sort of research. I think it changes the way we look at the world; it makes me feel more connected. So I’ll be posting these little tidbits every once in awhile.

Mary Oliver, “Morning in a New Land”
  • Hmmm… very interesting. But do you know where apples (as in the fruit, not the word) originated? Kazakhstan!

    I like the idea that if apple meant “the fruit of a tree” in the past, it puts doubt on what Eve was really chowing down on. She could have tempted Adam with a banana.

  • I think you must’ve missed the first sentence 😉 Unless you’re goofing on me, in which case, I’m not sure I get it? I’m sure we have the same source at least.

    You’re right about Adam and Eve. If I remember right it never actually says “apple” in the Bible. It could very well be that the word (or a word similar to) “abel” was used. Say…abel…Cain and Abel…I wonder…whoa.

  • Thanks for the post, it helped to answer my question about why the apple was used in the Bible. It’s also answered my quandary about why the French word for apple is pomme de terre – apple from the ground. Probably it’s more accurately “fruit from the ground,” or rather “vegetative produce from the ground,” or “eatable thing from the ground.”

    Now I’m wondering where the word fruit comes from, and how it usurped apple in it’s generality. “Fruit of my loom,” and “Fruit of my labor.” Also wondering why, when, and how abel/apple came to signify that one fruit, why that one and not another?

    Thanks for this post, got my juices flowing.

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