Saturday, September 29, 2018

Spices and herbs, Part 13: Eng. chives and Sp. cebollino

[This entry is an excerpt from the chapter "Spices, herbs, and other condiments" of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

Go to the listing of entries on spices, herbs and other condiments

Eng. chives and Sp. cebollino and related plants

The name chives refers to ‘a small plant related to the onion, with long tubular leaves used as a culinary herb’ (COED). This plant, known as cebollino in Spanish, is a perennial plant with hollow cylindrical leaves used for seasoning and found in much of Europe, Asia and North America. The botanical name of the chives plant is Allium schoenoprasum. Allium is the botanic name of the genus to which the onion, garlic, scallion, shallot, leek, and chives belong. Curiously, it is the only species that is native to the ‘Old World’ (Europe and Asia) and the ‘New World’ (North America).

The genus name Allium comes from the Latin word allĭum that meant ‘garlic’ and which is the word from which the patrimonial Spanish word ajo ‘garlic’ descends from. The second part of the species name, schoenoprasum, was created by putting together two words that come ultimately from Ancient Greek. The first one, Lat. schoenus ‘kind of aromatic reed’, comes from A. Greek σχοῖνος (skhoínos) ‘sedge, rush rope, or reed’. The second one is the New Latin word prasum derived from Gk. πράσον (práson) ‘leek’ (equivalent but unrelated to Lat. porrum ‘leek’, source of Sp. puerro ‘leek’).

Figure 180: (left) chives and onion compared (Allium schoenoprasum and Allium cepa).
Right: A clump of chives (Allium schoenoprasum), flowering in New Hampshire. [i]

The English word chives [ˈʧʰaɪ̯vz] is a plural form of chive, though the word is typically used in the plural, since this plant is usually handled in bunches. The word chive is derived from the Old French word cive, a patrimonial descendant in this language of Lat. cēpa or caepa ‘onion’, cf. Modern Fr. cive [ˈsiv] or civette [si.ˈvɛt]. A diminutive of this Latin word, cēpŭlla or caepŭlla, formed with the variant ‑ŭl‑ of the Latin diminutive suffix ‑ŭl‑, is the source of the patrimonial Spanish word cebolla ‘onion’ (cēp‑ŭll‑a). (Note that Lat. cēpŭlla could also be used as an alternative name for caepīna or cēpīna ‘a field or bed of onions’.)

The main Spanish name for chives is cebollino, a diminutive of the word cebolla ‘onion’ that we just saw, formed with the diminutive suffix ‑in‑. The diminutive suffix ‑in‑ is uncommon in Standard Spanish, which descends from Spanish Castilian Romance, but it is common in the region of Asturias, Leon, and Extremadura in Spain. However, in this dialect, the masculine form does not typically take the masculine inflection ‑o anymore.[1] Note also that the noun cebollino is masculine, whereas cebolla is feminine. It is interesting too that cebollino ‘chives’ is a diminutive of cebolla ‘onion’, in the same way that the word cebolla is itself a diminutive of the word for ‘onion’ in Latin, since it comes from Lat. cēpŭlla, a diminutive of cēpa (see above).

According to some English-Spanish dictionaries, another name for ‘chives’ in Spanish is cebolleta, a word that is also derived from Sp. cebolla ‘onion’ and also a diminutive, one formed with the also rare diminutive suffix ‑et‑, typically associated with Occitan, Catalan, and French loanwords.

Although some people seem to use the word cebolleta for chives, experts tell us that this word should be reserved for a similar-looking plant that people often confuse with chives. This other plant that cebolleta refers to is popularly known in English as green onions, spring onions, salad onions, or even in some places as scallions. Its botanical name is Allium fistulosum and it is a long, green and floppy plant with a small and elongated white bulb. The word cebolleta, however, is also used to refer to regular onions [Allium cepa] harvested early to be eaten raw, which is also known as cebolla tierna, ‘lit. tender/young onion’. This is particularly the case in Spain, where the true Allium fistulosum plant is rare. In English too, the words green onions, spring onions, and salad onions can refer to such types of the regular onion.

Figure 181: Allium fistulosum.[ii]

Other names for Allium fistulosum in English are Welsh onion, bunching onion, long green onion, Japanese bunching onion, and spring onion, though some of these names are ambiguous for they can also be used to refer to any young green onion stalk from this same genus. That is because this species is very close to the regular onion, Allium cepa, which is very similar in taste and smell, and the two species can be easily hybridized. However, Allium fistulosum does not develop bulbs and its leaves are hollow. Also, there are many different varieties of Allium fistulosum, which makes determining the type difficult for the uninitiated. The large number of varieties also explains why there is so much confusion about names. In Spanish too, the species Allium fistulosum goes by a variety of names in different countries. In addition to cebolleta, it is also called cebolla de verdeo (Argentina, Uruguay), cebollita de verdeo (Paraguay), cebolla larga, cebolla junca, cebolla blanca, cebolla de rama or cebolla verde (Colombia, Ecuador), cebollín or cebolla cambray (El Salvador, México, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela), cebollina (Panamá, Costa Rica, Honduras), and cebolla china (Perú).[iii]

By the way, the word cebollino can also have more than one sense. Thus, as we saw, in botany, it can be used to refer to chives (Allium schoenoprasum), but also to an onion seed about to be planted. And in agriculture, cebollino is the name for the grain sack where onion seeds are kept (Sp. sementero). Note that cebollino is also used in Spain to refer to a clumsy or dumb person, though that use may be a bit dated.

As for the origin of the botanical name Allium fistulosum, the fistulosum part of this species of plant comes from the neuter wordform of the Latin adjective fistŭlōsus, which meant ‘pipe-shaped, full of holes, porous’ (L&S), cf. Eng. fistulous and Sp. fistuloso/a, also meaning ‘tubular and hollow, as the leaves of a scallion’ (AHD) (fistŭl‑ōs‑us). This adjective is derived from Lat. fistŭla, which meant ‘a pipe’, ‘a hollow reed-stalk, a reed, cane’, etc.[2]

We mentioned that some use the name scallion for at least some varieties of Allium fistulosum. The English word scallion for the plant Allium fistulosum is used chiefly in North America, not elsewhere in the English-speaking world. In addition, the name scallion is not used only for the species Allium fistulosum, however, but also for other related species and varieties (cultivars).

Actually, different sources differ as to what things they claim the word scallion represents. The OED seems to be on the right track when it tells us that the word scallion is used to refer to three things: (1) in the US, the shallot, i.e. the plant Allium ascalonicum (see below); (2) the Welsh onion or ‘chibol’, that is, Allium fistulosum; and (3) the spring onion, namely ‘an onion which fails to bulb but forms a long neck and strong blade’ (in other words, young, early picked regular onions). This third sense refers to young varieties of Allium cepa (regular onion), that is those harvested before a bulb forms or even right after bulbing has started. Some varieties of onion that are typically harvested early include White Lisbon, White Lisbon Winter Hardy, and Calçot. Other species that are sometimes called scallion in English include Allium chinense and Allium × proliferum (also known as tree onion, topsetting onion, walking onion, or Egyptian onion). According to American dictionaries, such as AHD, MWC and RHWU, in addition to a young onion, a scallion is also ‘any of several onion-like plants, such as the leek or shallot’ (AHD).

As for the source name scallion [ˈskæ.ljən], typically used in the plural form scallions, it is a late 15th century loanword from Old North French escalogne, which comes from Vulgar Latin *escalonia, from Lat. ascalonia, a clipping of the phrase cæpa ascalonia ‘onion from Ascalon’, which was a coastal city in ancient Palestine (modern Ashkelon in Israel). The word scallion is cognate with the word shallot, which was borrowed from a different dialect of French and in the mid-17th century. Eng. shallot comes from French échalote, from Middle French eschalote (cf. 1500), from Old French eschalogne or eschalone (13th century), from the same Vulgar Latin *escalonia.  

As for the word spelled shallot or shalot, both pronounced [ʃə.ˈlɒt] or [ʃəˈlɑt], dictionaries also differ as to what it represents (the spelling shallot is more common, although it misrepresents its normal pronunciation with word-final stress). According to the OED, it is the name of ‘a small onion, Allium ascalonicum, native in Syria and cultivated for use as a flavoring ingredient for salads, sauces, etc.’. A more recent botanical name for this plant is Allium cepa variety aggregatum. In other words, it is not classified as a separate species anymore (Allium ascalonicum) but rather as a variety of the regular onion species (Allium cepa). This variety reproduces primarily by division, with a single plant forming an aggregate cluster of bulbs which are smaller than those of regular onions, coming out of a single master (much like garlic does). This plant is also known as aggregatum onion and gumbo onion.

If one looks in English-Spanish dictionaries, we find that the word scallion has two meanings. It can be translated in two different ways according to the sense meant: (1) cebolleta ‘spring onion’, but also, according to some dictionaries, cebollino, cebolla de verdeo (Río de la Plata), or cebollín (Chile), due to the confusion mentioned earlier; or (2) the plant known as shallot in North America, which in Spanish is primarily chalote or chalota, as we are about to see.

If we look for the word shallot in English-Spanish dictionaries, we find that some say that the Spanish word is (feminine) chalota, though other dictionaries, such as the OSD, also give an alternate chalote as an alternative, which the DLE tells us can be either masculine or feminine. The source of chalote is obviously French échalotte, the source of Eng. shallot. Since French échalotte is feminine but words in ‑ote in Spanish are typically masculine, it is not surprising that Spanish ended up with two versions of this word, confused about its gender and ending. The DLE gives two other alternatives for this name: ajo chalote and ajo de ascalonia (note the word ajo ‘garlic’ in these names, as opposed to cebolla ‘onion’). Other names that have been used in Spanish are escalonia, ascalonia, escaluña, and cebolla escalonia.

Figure 182: Allium tuberosum.[iv]

There is another plant that whose English name contains the word chives, namely garlic chives, which is another species of the same genus Allium: Allium tuberosum. This plant comes from northern Asia from where it has spread to other parts of Asia and beyond. It is also known in English as Chinese chives, Oriental garlic, Chinese leek, or jiu cai. The most common name in Spanish is perhaps cebollín chino (but see below). It is a tough and fibrous perennial plant that grows from a small, elongated bulb. The plant is widely used in Asian cuisine as a condiment.

The Chinese name for garlic chives is written 韭菜 and it has various pronunciations in different Chinese languages and dialects (cf. Part I, Chapter 2, §2.3.4), though the standard Romanization is kíu chhoi. it is also grown in northeastern India, where the name it goes by is maroi nakuppi, a name one sometimes finds for this plant in the West as well. In Japan, it is known as (nira) and in Korea as 부추 (buchu). To the extent that this plant is used in the Spanish-speaking world, it is sometimes called by adaptations of its Chinese and Japanese names, kow choi and nirá, respectively. If garlic or Chinese chives are grown without light, a variety known as Chinese yellow chives results, so-called because of their color. They are also more delicate in texture and flavor.

As for the source of the second part of the botanical name Allium tuberosum, we find that it comes from the neuter form of the rare Latin adjective tūbĕrōsus, which meant ‘full of humps, lumps, or protuberances’ (L&S). This adjective was derived from the noun tūber (genitive: tūbĕris) that meant ‘a hump, bump, swelling, tumor, protuberance on animal bodies, whether natural or caused by disease’ (L&S).[3]

In summary, we have spoken in this section about the names of several species of plant that can be used as herbs, though at least some can also be classified as vegetables. The following chart summarizes the main names for the different plants that we have discussed:

Species name
Allium cepa
Allium schoenoprasum
cebollino, cebolleta, ...
Allium cepa
(early harvested)
green onion, scallion, …
cebolleta, cebolla tierna, …
Alium fistulosum
spring onion, scallion, …
cebolleta, cebolla de verdeo, …
Allium cepa variety aggregatum
(Allium ascalonicum)
shallot, scallion
chalota/e, escalonia, …
Allium tuberosum
garlic chives
cebollín chino, kow choi, nirá, ...

[1] Thus, in this dialect, pelín is the equivalent of standard Spanish pelito ‘little hair’ and cosina is equivalent to standard cosita. The words pequeñín and pequeñina ‘tiny’and tontín and tontina ‘silly’ are commonly heard all over Spain.

[2] Lat. fistŭlōsus could also mean ‘having fistulas, fistulous’, i.e. a cancer or long narrow ulcer. Eng. fistulous and Sp. fistuloso/a can also mean ‘of or resembling a fistula’ (AHD). The English word fistula and its Spanish cognate fístula refer in medicine to an abnormal connection between two organs or physiological structures, such as between the rectum and the vagina, the intestine and skin intestine and the bladder, and the skin and the anus. As we just saw, Lat. fistŭlōsus comes from Lat. fistŭla, which meant ‘a pipe, tube, e. g. a water-pipe’, ‘a hollow reed-stalk, a reed, cane’, ‘a hollow reed-stalk, a reed, cane’, ‘catheter’, and, finally, ‘a sort of ulcer, a fistula’. This noun is derived from the verb findĕre ‘to cleave, split, part, separate, divide’ (findo, findĕre, fĭdi, fissum). Note that from the stemp fiss‑ of the supine form of this verb come the words Eng. fisure and Sp. fisura.

[3] In botany, Eng. tuber refers to ‘a round swollen part on the stem of some plants, such as the potato, that grows below the ground and from which new plants grow’ (DOCE). This translates into Spanish as tubérculo, a 19th century loanword from Lat. tūbercŭlum, a diminutive of the word tūber. English has a cognate of Sp. tubérculo, namely tubercle, which also translates as tubérculo in Spanish. In anatomy, zoology and botany, tubercle means ‘a small rounded projection or protuberance, especially on a bone or on the surface of an animal or plant’. In medicine, on the other hand, it means ‘a small nodular lesion in the lungs or other tissues, characteristic of tuberculosis’ (COED). Hence this is the source of the name of the disease tuberculosis (same in English and Spanish). This disease was known traditionally as consumption in English and tisis in Spanish. Eng. consumption comes from the radical weight loss associated with the disease. Another common name in English is TB, which stands for tubercle bacillus. Sp. tisis comes from from Lat. phthisis, itself from Gk. φθ́σς (phthísis), which literally meant ‘decline, decay, wasting away, atrophy’, but which was used to name the disease as well.

[i] Sources: “Illustration Allium schoenoprasum0 clean” by Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé - Original book source: Prof. Otto Wilhelm Thomé; Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz. 1885, Gera, Germany Source: Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -; “Allium schoenoprasum in NH 01” by Captain-tucker - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
[iv] Source: By KENPEI - KENPEI's photo, CC BY-SA 3.0, (2018.09.29)

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