fruit melody

In browsing through the third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage recently, I was surprised to read that some English speakers think a fruit medley, meaning ‘a mixture of fruits served as a dessert,’ is a fruit melody. Oh sing to me, you luscious fruits, before I devour you! And Google is accompanying that melodious singing with over eight million hits for fruit melody, roughly half as many as for the correct fruit medley. One factor in the confusion, aside from the similarity in sound of medley and melody, is that musicians have long used medley in the sense of ‘a mixture of parts of various pieces of music,’ hence the connection to melodies.

Let’s meddle with the etymology of medley: the word came into Middle English from Anglo-Norman medlee, the feminine past participle of medler, which indeed meant ‘to meddle.’ That Anglo-Norman verb was a variant of Old French mesler (modern mêler), which developed from Vulgar Latin *misculāre ‘to mix up.’ The classical Latin verb had been miscēre, whose past participle mixtus we’ve borrowed as mixto/mixed. Another related word we’ve inherited from Latin is misceláneo/miscellaneous.

As a doublet of medley, English has borrowed modern French mêlée, the feminine past participle of mêler ‘to mix,’ to mean ‘a confused fight, a brawl,’ and less combatively ‘a confusing mass of people in motion.’ Note that the brawling of the stronger meaning has knocked the accents clean out of melee, which is how English usually spells the word.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

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10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mrsdaffodil
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 18:19:21

    How wonderful to have Google keeping track of our mistakes and making helpful suggestions: “Did you mean fruit medley?”

    Reply

  2. nliakos
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 22:01:31

    Maybe because Google tells you what it thinks you want to hear.
    I loved this post. Makes me think of my new favorite word, kerfuffle, which I am suddenly seeing a lot (in the newspaper, for example). Care to trace that one?

    Reply

    • Steve Schwartzman
      Aug 28, 2013 @ 22:17:26

      Your first sentence implies that Google is a politician.

      Merriam-Webster says that kerfuffle is an alteration of carfuffle, from Scots car- (probably from Scottish Gaelic cearr wrong, awkward) + fuffle to become disheveled. It lists the first known us as 1946, but you’re right that the word has recently come into vogue.

      Reply

  3. Juan
    Aug 31, 2013 @ 10:52:39

    And from *misculāre meaning “to mix up”, Spanish mezclar (via mesclar), with the same meaning.

    This confusion fruit medley/fruit melody makes me remember a quite frequent Spanish mistake that I personally heard once. Some people get tricked by rhyme and when they should use the idiom me puse como un basilisco, that is, “I got furious with anger”, because of the supposed fury inherent to the mythological Basilisk’s eyes, they actually say me puse como un obelisco, which—if listened from a man’s mouth—makes every woman around get a red face either from laughter or blush…

    Reply

  4. shoreacres
    Sep 01, 2013 @ 10:37:11

    There’s at least one person who’s pulled off a winning combination of fruit medley and fruit melody. Even though she was born in Portugal and lived in Brazil, I think she fits in here quite nicely!

    Reply

  5. kathryningrid
    Sep 02, 2013 @ 16:08:19

    You certainly know that my style in the kitchen means you’re less likely to be served a fruit medley than a fruit melee there. But I’ll at least try to insure that it’s a tasty brawl of fruit.

    Reply

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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