After lunch today I ate some almonds, so it seems reasonable to write about that type of nut this afternoon. Although some English words that begin with al-, and many more Spanish ones that begin that way, come from Arabic, this isn’t one of them. English almond is the modern form of Middle English almande, borrowed directly from Old French. That word had developed from Late Latin amandula, a refashioning (to put it kindly) of Latin amygdala, which the Romans had taken from amygdale, the Greek word for ‘almond.’ The garbling (to put it realistically) of the classical Latin word also followed another course, to Vulgar Latin amyndula, and then, with more shuffling around of the consonants and a change from l to r, to almendra, the Spanish word for ‘almond.’ In spite of all the changes in both lines of development, English almond and Spanish almendra have ended up being fairly similar.
Renaissance anatomists went back to Latin for amígdala/amygdala, which they used originally for ‘a tonsil,’ and later for ‘any of various other almond-shaped organs,’ including, in the words of Webster’s New World College Dictionary ’a small, round mass of gray matter in the front part of the temporal lobe of the brain.’ Wikipedia adds that the amygdala is “believed to play a key role in the emotions, such as fear and pleasure, in both animals and humans.” If so, then people who delight in the taste of an almond are stimulating their amygdala.
But delight can turn to sorrow, and some readers of this column were no doubt saddened recently to learn about the death on October 14 of the mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, the discoverer or creator—depending on how you see mathematics—of the beautiful type of pattern he named a fractal. Why mention him here now? Because the name Mandelbrot is made up of German Mandel ‘almond’ and Brot ‘bread,’ so Mandelbrot happens to mean ‘almond bread.’
© 2010 Steven Schwartzman