Pea in its own right

While there’s no pea in peacock, the kind of green pea that people eat deserves a look in its own right. The singular of that word in Old English was pise, which in Middle English became pease. From its pronunciation, that eventually got taken for a plural, so English speakers created the new and unambiguous singular pea. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word originally came into Old English from Late Latin pīsa, which was a variant of the pīsum that Latin had taken from Greek pisos, pison.

Although the most common Spanish word for ‘pea’ is probably the unrelated arveja, pea does have two roughly synonymous relatives in Spanish. The one that’s not hard to recognize is pésol. It came into Spanish from Catalan pèsol, which had developed from pīsulum, a diminutive of Latin pīsum. And then there’s guisante, which almost no one would suspect is an etymological relative. It owes its disguise to the fact that it entered Spanish from Arabic. The Arabs had most likely borrowed the Latin phrase pīsum sapidum, in which the adjective, which Spanish has borrowed as sápido, meant ‘tasty.’ That phrase was phonetically reduced on its way to becoming Mozárabe biššáuṭ, which then passed into various Spanish dialects. The modern form guisante is due to influence from the unrelated verb guisar ‘to stew, to cook.’

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim Ruebush
    Apr 17, 2016 @ 11:42:19

    Give peas a chance.


  2. shoreacres
    Apr 17, 2016 @ 11:49:29

    I grew up with a nursery rhyme, a clapping game, that had roots in a book from c.1760-1780 called Mother Goose’s Melody:

    Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,
    Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old;
    Some like it hot, some like it cold,
    Some like it in the pot, nine days old.

    For years, I didn’t have a clue about the nature of pease porridge. I think I imagined it as something like oatmeal. In fact, it’s more like a thick split pea soup, made from dried field peas rather than our fresh, green peas. It’s also called pease pottage or pease pudding. And the Wiki entry for the nursery rhyme does note that “‘Pease’ was treated as a mass noun, similar to ‘oatmeal’, and the singular ‘pea’ and plural ‘peas’ arose by back-formation.”

    Here’s an odd tidbit. There’s a village in England named Pease Pottage. It’s just south of Gatwick Airport.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 17, 2016 @ 12:07:38

      Like you, I remember that nursery rhyme from childhood, but hardly any kids who grow up today are exposed to Mother Goose. Also like you, I didn’t know anything about pease porridge. There were various other things I didn’t understand in those nursery rhymes because they were references to characters and events in British history.

      I wonder if restaurants in Pease Pottage serve pease pottage.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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