In Flowering Earth, copyrighted in 1939, the wonderful American nature writer Donald Culross Peattie said this:

The significant fact is that all the really great changes have come from the inside out. They are born of the inner nature of the organism itself. They must have lain there, inherent as a possibility (more, as an irrepressible necessity) in the first Adamite organism, just as a tall pine is potential in a soft pinyon seed no larger than a child’s tooth.

And just as canyon is an English respelling of Spanish cañón, we recognize pinyon as an English respelling of piñón, which means ‘pine cone.’ That Spanish word, perhaps surprisingly, is based on the piña that English calls pineapple, a fruit that is not an apple and doesn’t grow on pine trees. What’s going on here? Mathematics provides an answer: the arrangement of the scales on a pine cone is quite similar to the arrangement of the patches on the surface of a pineapple, both involving the so-called Fibonacci numbers (about which you can read much more in English and in Spanish).

Spanish piña evolved from the similar Latin pinea, an adjective that meant ‘having to do with a pine,’ based on the Latin noun pinus that has become pino/pine (botanists have also put the original back to work as the genus Pinus). In the development of Latin into Spanish, the adjective pinea ultimately became a noun and took on the modern sense ‘pine cone.’ That’s still one of the meanings of piña, though not one that foreign students of Spanish are usually aware of. Meanings of piña that are still less familiar, even in many cases to native Spanish speakers, are: ‘a corn cob; a tight-knit group of people; a conical mass of silver left behind in the refining process.’

Anyone who’s shopped for pine nuts in a grocery store can tell you that they’re expensive, but English speakers can’t seem to get enough of them, even to the point that alongside pinyons (or sometimes pinyones or even piñones), the English language has added the doublet pignoli, the plural of the Italian cognate pignolo.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Dec 18, 2011 @ 07:06:11

    And while I’ve swung at a few piñatas, I’ve never gone beyond a simple acceptance – “that word is for that thing”. Could it be that the arrangement of the paper “scales” recalled the pineapple/pinecone? Now that I think of it, that’s precisely what our beautiful Christmas piñatas resemble.


  2. Steve Schwartzman
    Dec 18, 2011 @ 07:49:03

    Since you asked, I’ve gone ahead and published the sequel to this post, which gives the answer—one that surprised me when I learned it a few years ago, given how closely a piñata is associated with Mexico and Spanish.


  3. niasunset
    Dec 21, 2011 @ 07:27:45

    This was interesting again. I know “Pina” because of the great dancer Pina Bausch. Can be used as a name in both language, Italian and German… With the same meaning. Thank you dear Steve, I’ve learned something new. With my love, nia


  4. Steve Schwartzman
    Dec 21, 2011 @ 09:04:55

    Thanks for pointing out the connection to the name Pina.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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