Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

The Pulse(s) of the Nation(s)

The breathless anticipation is now at an end and the festivities can commence: it is 2016, the International Year of Pulses. If your main dialect of English is a North American one, you may begin by wondering whose pulses are included, since you probably think of pulse as designating the rhythmic contraction and expansion of the arteries with each beat of the heart. But there is the other pulse, familiar to speakers of other English dialects, that is more or less synonymous with legume. Why not do away with the relative formality of that term as well and just say that what we're talking about here is beans—dried ones, that come in the pods of leguminous plants and are grown as food crops.

You may well ask why beans get their own year, and the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is standing by with an answer: on their website devoted to the subject, we learn that pulses are important because they are

a critical part of the general food basket. Pulses are a vital source of plant-based proteins and amino acids for people around the globe and should be eaten as part of a healthy diet to address obesity, as well as to prevent and help manage chronic diseases such as diabetes, coronary conditions and cancer; they are also an important source of plant-based protein for animals.

The Lounge's interest in pulses is purely linguistic—bean nomenclature provides very rich pickings for word sleuths. Indeed, it would probably be possible to trace a variety of themes in human civilization by looking at the names of pulses in various languages, and you could fill a book in the process: humans have hardly ever ventured beyond their native stomping grounds without taking pulses along with them, and because of that, much can be gleaned, if not directly harvested, concerning the movements of beans from the names they carry in various languages.

To take a simple and familiar example: consider the humble chickpea. That's its British English name, a name it enjoys in American English as well, where it is also designated as garbanzo (the Spanish name), owing to its importation twice to the United States, by the Anglophone settlers who came via the Atlantic coast, and by the Spanish who came from the South. The wordmap of chickpea also gives the Latin binomial, Cicer arietinum, in which you can see the etymon of chick-, as well as a suggestion of the name the chickpea answers to in other European languages, variously cece, pois chiche, and Kichererbse (you can see some of these by turning on the display of different languages in the Visual Thesaurus wordmaps).

Why would the Spanish, who speak a Romance language, have broken away from the pack and chosen a non-Romance word for the popular pulse? One etymological theory is that the Spanish got their word from Basque garbanztu. Another suggests that the word is ultimately derived from Greek ἐρέβινθος, erebinthos. Still another, which came to light only last year in the latest update of the American Heritage Dictionary, holds that garbanzo is

perhaps alteration (influenced by Old Spanish garroba, carob) of Old Spanish *arvanço (compare Portuguese ervanço, chickpea), perhaps from Gothic *arwaits; akin to Dutch erwt and Old High German araweiz, pea, both from Proto-Germanic *arwait-,* arwīt-, pea, pulse.

You may think that exhausts your word mappings for the Cicer genus, but your lexicon probably contains another pointer to the chickpea that you may not have noted: حمص, otherwise hamus, the Arabic word for the pulse, which with a couple of tweaks gives us hummus, the ubiquitous spread made from mashed chickpeas and other delicious things.

Without further specification, the word bean (or its equivalent in another language) probably conjures an image in your mind corresponding to the constituents of this picture, all of which are varieties of the Phaseolus vulgaris, the common bean. Depending on your language you may have individual names for any or all of the varieties. There's the dark red kidney bean, and its white counterpart, the great northern bean—so called in North America, though the Italians (along with upmarket menus and Anglophone foodies) call the white beans cannellini.

The brown bean with brown speckles is called a pinto bean in English. That term is modeled on American Spanish frijol pinto. The pinto part is from American Spanish for "spotted" and was applied to horses before beans. The frijol part is the generic Spanish word for bean but it has a life in English too; when pinto beans are cooked, mashed, and fried (deliciously) in lard, spices, and onions, they become refried beans or frijoles refritos, a staple of every Mexican restaurant menu. The Spanish word frijol finds its way back to Latin—wait for it—phaseolus. If you're a dedicated foodie you may see phaseolus echoed as well in another Italian import: the dish called pasta e fagioli.

Contenders with Phaseolus species in pulse popularity are beans of the genus Vigna, the cowpeas. Beans in this genus include the adzuki bean, the common small red bean of Asia for which English uses a Japanese word; the mung bean, another Asian import for which English uses a word of Hindi origin; and the black-eyed pea. For this one, English has chosen a very prosaic, descriptive term that masks the bean's colorful history. It probably came to the New World with African slaves and it remains more popular today in the US South than elsewhere in the country. If you're from there, you may still have some of these in your digestive tract; it's a tradition to eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day to bring good luck in the new year (the beans swell upon cooking, just as your fortune will, according to tradition).

But here's a curious thing: In Arabic the black-eyed pea is called لوبيا, lubia, a word that is probably of Persian origin but that has been borrowed into other languages. There's a cognate in Hebrew, לוביה, rubia, and a smattering of websites devoted to Jewish culinary tradition note that this word is similar to rab, the word for "increase." Eating black-eyed peas on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), is a Jewish tradition as well, the idea of increase in the new year being an auspicious one, and some sources date this food habit to the Babylonian Talmud. Did the Southern US tradition arise de novo or did it somehow grow out of the Jewish one? There is no paper trail to tell us; but it is certain that people will always find good excuses to eat beans, and carry the names of them across linguistic barriers. May your 2016 be full of beans!


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday January 7th 2016, 6:15 AM
Comment by: Jim K. (Sandia Park, NM)
Thank you for such an interesting and informative article!
Thursday January 7th 2016, 9:04 AM
Comment by: David D.
I expected a nod to the southwest Native American & Mexican Native peoples use of beans in the critical "three sisters," combination of beans, squash and maize. Also the dependence on a combination of beans and rice in both Mexican cuisine and the sort of quasi Mediterranean diet that was popular in the US in the '60s. In any case the increased use of pulses now has plenty of historical precedence and hope for a better diet for the future. I love my beans.
Thursday January 7th 2016, 9:06 AM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
A fine excursion. That's using the old bean!
Thursday January 7th 2016, 11:46 AM
Comment by: Robert B. (Norwich United Kingdom)
Lovely article! I think flageolet beans could have found their way in. And the Portuguese feijâo.
Thursday January 7th 2016, 11:47 AM
Comment by: Robert B. (Norwich United Kingdom)
Should be feijao (with a ~ on the "a")
Thursday January 7th 2016, 9:58 PM
Comment by: Craig J.
The minority opinion on beans holds that they may taste fine, but aren't particularly wholesome for diabetics, or much of anybody else for that matter. I (reluctantly) follow the minority, but still ate my Hoppin' John on New Year's Day.
Tuesday February 14th 2017, 4:26 PM
Comment by: Juwan Parker
Thanks for making this quite interesting article.

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