For those not familiar with Spanish and English carambola, it’s the fruit of an Asian tree that Spanish calls carambolo (English uses the feminine for the fruit and the tree). Both languages took carambola from Portuguese, which may have borrowed it from karambal, a word in the Marathi language of India. The yellow fruit, whose edible flesh is somewhat acrid, has prominent ridges on its outside, as shown here, so that a slice across the fruit perpendicular to the ridges produces sections that have a stylized star shape. For that reason, English also calls the carambola a star fruit.

Spanish has used its own imagination in this case, giving carambola the additional meanings shown in this entry from the 1862 Diccionario portátil de la lengua castellana:

Spanish revesino is the name of a card game, and the more familiar truco has various meanings, one of which, often as a plural, is ‘a game akin to billiards.’ The 22nd edition of the Diccionario de la lengua española adds another sense of carambola: ‘lance del juego de trucos o billar en el que la bola arrojada toca a otras dos,’ which is to say ‘a stroke in the game of trucos or billiards in which the cue ball strikes two others.’ Notice in all this the curious disregard for the ridges on the tropical fruit, which make it a strange model for a billiard ball. Or maybe the way that a carambola fruit bounces around when it rolls on a flat surface led to the Spanish sense of hitting first one ball and then another. (Yes, the semantics are bouncy, too.)

For the next part of the story we have to turn to French. According to the Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, in the early 1600s French borrowed the Portuguese plural carambolas as the singular carambole, which served as a name for the tropical fruit. In the late 1700s, apparently looking to Spanish, French used carambole for ‘a billiard ball.’ At the same time, the verb caramboler came to mean, with reference to a cue ball in billiards, ‘to strike two other balls.’

And finally the non-fruit connection to English: English borrowed the French verb caramboler, keeping its meaning but shortening the word to carom. With a caroming beyond the confines of the billiard table, English carom has added the more general sense ‘to hit and bounce off,’ as when an out-of-control car caroms off a highway guard rail. British English, by the way, added yet another hop: influenced by the name of the weapon of war that fires metal spheres, it changed the verb carom to cannon.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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