Tag Archives: Fruit

Does inclement weather have anything to do with citrus fruit?

21 May

On Wednesday night, travelling home was a nightmare.  It was raining outside (a rare occurrence at the moment!) and, as a result, everyone heads underground into the Tube.  I shuffled through Bank station, so tightly packed my nose was pressed between the shoulder blades of a stranger’s back.

The guard came on the tannoy and told us to move carefully as the floors were slippery, thanks to the inclement weather.  Apart from the irony of the statement (we could hardly move at all!), a thought suddenly popped into my head – “does the ‘inclement’ part relate etymologically to a clementine at all?

So here we go.  ‘Inclement’ is the negative form of ‘clement’, which means mild or temperate.  I only ever really hear ‘inclement’ used to describe the weather – it’s just a posh way of saying ‘bad weather’.   The in- part is a prefix used to indicate a negative form (inadvisable; indistinguishable), although the prefix un- is more common in English.

The earliest use of ‘inclement’ the OED records is from 1621, although there’s a notable use from 1667 in Milton’s Paradise Lost: To shun Th’ inclement Seasons, Rain, Ice, Hail and Snow.

‘Clement’ is quite a bit older than its negative form, and derives directly from the Latin ‘clēment-em’ (mild, gentle, placid)Modern French has a direct cognate in clément, which means exactly the same as the English.

The first appearance of clement in English is from 1483, and appears in a religious context, describing a person’s behaviour towards others; you can see this sense in this translation of Boethius from 1535:   Ane victour suld be Curtas and clement, but crudelitie.

It’s not until the early 17th century that ‘clement’ is applied to the weather: “So clement and benign a soyl, that Roses grow there thrice a year” (1622) – although these days we scarcely use ‘clement’ (the OED lists the usage as ‘rare), only ‘inclement’, when talking about the weather – which is perhaps more indicative of the weather than our use of language!

So what’s the relationship between this word that means ‘mild’ and a small, sweet citrus fruit?

I’m still not entirely sure – but it seems like ‘clementine’ is a pretty modern word.  It’s first recorded in English as late as 1926 – “The Clementine orange (a cross between tangerine and sour orange) is very severely affected [by citrus rust]”, although the OED cites a French usage from 1902.

Where the OED goes quiet, the Online Dictionary of Etymology proves more helpful.  It describes the clementine as an accidental hybrid – “a cross between tangerine and sour orange” – and perhaps not surprisingly, it was named after the man who discovered the hybrid, one Father Clement Rodier, who ran an orphanage in Algeria.

In a very roundabout way, there is then a connection between my ‘inclement weather’ driving people into the Tube and the clementine fruit.   The original sense of ‘clement’, which described a person’s behaviour as ‘gentle’, was used as a first name – and it just happened that a person called Clement discovered a hybrid fruit, which ended up being named after him.

Good thing he wasn’t called Rodney.


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!