Oh what a lovely kumquat!

10 May

I’ve just got back from a holiday in Corfu – my first visit to Greece – and one of the most unexpected aspects of Corfiot life was the love of the kumquat.

It was ubiquitous – you’d see kumquat trees peaking out of gardens, laden with fruit; you’d see the fruit appearing in some quite surprising dishes on the menu, and if you visited any kind of tourist shop, if you could imagine something kumquat flavoured, then it existed!

It got me thinking about what a strange word kumquat is and wondering where and when we imported the word into English (and also likely imported the fruit itself!).

The etymology of kumquat is truly exotic; it derives from the Cantonese pronunciation of the Chinese kin kü, which means ‘gold orange’.  (The fruit is a member of the citrus family.)  The Chinese have been writing about kumquats since the 12th century as the plant is native to the Asia Pacific region.

Fascinatingly, the first recorded usage of kumquat in English was as early as 1699 by the extraordinary figure of William Dampier, who the OED describes as ‘buccaneer and explorer’.  Other terms, such as pirate, natural historian, adventurer and sailor could be equally applied to Dampier, who, amongst his many achievements, was also the first person to circumnavigate the globe three times.

In his Voyages and Descriptions, he wrote thus of the kumquat:

The Oranges are of divers sorts, and two of them more excellent than the rest. One sort is called Cam-chain, the other is called Camquit‥. The Cam-quit is a very small round Fruit.

The next significant uses of kumquat in English are not until the 19th century, and all appear in gardening or horticulture publications.  Wikipedia suggests that the kumquat was introduced to Europe in 1845 by the botanist Robert Fortune, from whom the plant’s genus name of Fortunella is derived.

Its European introduction was clearly successful enough for grocers to offer ‘cumquats’ in their catalogues by the end of the 19th  century, and 160 years later, we can see the small island of Corfu has created a whole industry based on this little fruit!

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