Aunt Perilla

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Photograph of a packet of seeds purchased by Dara Connolly's wife in a Daiso 100-yen shop in Japan:

The writing in large hiragana and kanji near the top of the packet says "shiso ōba しそ大葉".  In katakana plus kanji that would be "shiso ōba シソ大葉".  If written in kanji, the "shiso" part would be 紫蘇.

Whether written as しそ, シソ, or 紫蘇, that "shiso" part of the name refers to Perilla frutescens var. crispa, a variety of species Perilla frutescens of the genus Perilla, which belongs to the mint family.  For the moment, I will concentrate only on this part of the four syllable name of the seeds in the packet.

The nomenclature of Perilla frutescens var. crispa in English, Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese offers zestful food for thought.  For Korean, Uyghur, and other languages, perhaps Language Log readers can contribute relevant terms in the comments.

In English, I know this plant as shiso (/ˈʃiːsoʊ/), borrowed directly from Japanese シソ, but I've also heard it referred to as perilla, which I think of as a fragrant, flavorful herb like basil or mint.

Quoting Wikipedia:

This herb was previously known as the "beefsteak plant", a mostly obsolete name. It is sometimes referred to by its genus name, Perilla, which is ambiguous, as the name also includes the Perilla frutescens, which is a different culinary cultigen. Starting around the 1980s, the rise in popularity of Japanese cuisine has resulted in the mass media more commonly referring to it as shiso.

In Japan, the plant is called shiso (紫蘇/シソ[ɕiso̞]). In Vietnam, it is called tía tô ([tiɜ˧ˀ˦ to˧˧]). The Japanese name shiso and the Vietnamese tía tô are cognates, each loan words from zǐsū (紫苏/紫蘇), which means Perilla frutescens in Chinese. (Perilla frutescens var. crispa is called huíhuísū (回回苏/回回蘇) in Chinese.)  [VHM:  huíhuí 回回 means "Hui people; Muslims", hence huíhuísū回回苏/回回蘇 means "perilla of the Hui people / Muslims".]  The first character  means "purple", and the second  means "to be resurrected, revived, rehabilitated". In Japan, shiso traditionally denoted the purple-red form.

The red-leaved form of shiso was introduced into the West around the 1850s, when the ornamental variety was usually referred to as P. nankinensis. This red-leafed border plant eventually earned the English-language name "beefsteak plant". This was the English equivalent name and was in standard usage over a period. It was used in the authoritative Kenkyūsha's New Japanese–English Dictionary, which kept the old-fashioned name in circulation to today.

Other common names include "perilla mint", "Chinese basil", and "wild basil". The alias "wild coleus" or "summer coleus" probably describe ornamental varieties. The red shiso or su tzu types are called purple mint or purple mint plant. It is called rattlesnake weed in the Ozarks, because the sound the dried stalks make when disturbed along a footpath is similar to a rattlesnake's rattling sound.

Now, we can dispense with the last two characters of the name "shiso ōba しそ大葉" much more quickly, even though it is they that led to the mistranslation "Aunt" in the English name "Aunt Perilla" on the package.  To put the matter simply, ōba 大葉 means "large leaf".  Since around the 1960s, it has become fashionable to selectively pick just the leaf portion (especially the larger leaves) of the plant and market that as "shiso ōba しそ大葉" ("big leaf perilla").  The mistranslation on the seed packet resulted from confusing ōba 大葉 (note that the initial vowel is long) with the first part of "obasan おばさん" (note that the initial vowel is short), which means "aunt".  Somebody was being very sloppy when they input "shiso oba" instead of "shiso ōba" into their machine translation system.

Incidentally, I've always liked the sound of the transcription of "obasan おばさん" into Chinese as ōubāsāng 歐巴桑 ("auntie; granny") — mostly in Taiwanese (o͘-bá-sáng) and Shanghainese (eu pa saan).



19 Comments »

  1. Aaron Toivo said,

    June 14, 2018 @ 1:00 am

    I was introduced to this plant by my Korean cousins, who when speaking English call it "sesame leaf".

  2. Travis said,

    June 14, 2018 @ 3:15 am

    Ah! I'd always wondered what beefsteak plant was exactly. Now I see it's something I've been eating all along!

  3. Krogerfoot said,

    June 14, 2018 @ 4:20 am

    This is a really strange mistake, so much so that I wonder if the person who made it understands neither English nor Japanese. A literate (ie, every) Japanese person could hardly fail to notice that おば would not generate 大葉 on a kanji conversion keyboard, so if they used an electronic dictionary, the lack of a second お would be really hard to miss. If they looked the word up in a paper dictionary (if those still exist), おおば would appear many pages before おば, as there are about 45 kana between お and ば. I suspect something more than mere carelessness brought this about.

  4. quodlibet said,

    June 14, 2018 @ 5:58 am

    Like @Aaron Toivo, I have heard this plant called "sesame leaf" by Koreans (my wife and the produce department at the local H-Mart). But when speaking Korean, they call it 깻잎. This could be transliterated character for character as kkaes-ip', but Korean sound-change rules make it sound very much like "catnip".

  5. Keith said,

    June 14, 2018 @ 8:34 am

    I've encountered these leaves in Korean and Japanese grocery shops in the US and in France, where they are variously given the names deulkkae or kae-nip( Ive read that this means "wild sesame"), shiso, and perilla or pérille.

    Indeed, googling for 깻잎 leads to the Korean wikipedia page for 들깨
    https://www.google.com/search?q=깻잎

    There is also an article about 소엽.
    https://ko.wikipedia.org/wiki/%EC%86%8C%EC%97%BD

  6. Linda Chance said,

    June 14, 2018 @ 8:48 am

    In the Kansai region of Japan, these are sold as simply 大葉. The cookpad web platform collects recipes for them under that name as well. Typically ten cultivated leaves of the same standard size to a package (foam tray with plastic wrap) sets you back two or three hundred yen at least, which always seemed too dear to me. Especially once I planted some in the backyard and saw how quickly it takes over. "Wild" and "weed" seem appropriate.

  7. Nick Kaldis said,

    June 14, 2018 @ 9:18 am

    Like Arron and Quodlibet, I know this as "sesame". We have been growing it in our garden for many summers, it's a very hearty perennial (in our upstate NY zone) that spreads like wildfire. My Taiwanese wife, who eats the leaves raw with Korean hot chili paste and meat or doufu, was first given some of these plants by a Korean friend. I find them very bitter, not Basil- or mint-like at all.

  8. Van said,

    June 14, 2018 @ 11:50 am

    I often eat bún bò xào so I'll have it mixed in with other herbs and vegetables. We Vietnamese love our herbs.

  9. Xmun said,

    June 14, 2018 @ 3:26 pm

    @Nick Kaldis
    Do you mean "a very hardy perennial", rather than "hearty"?

  10. Francis Boyle said,

    June 15, 2018 @ 4:54 am

    Having only the vaguest idea of the use of kanji vs kana I'm struggling to understand Krogerfoot's point. If 'ōba' is 'おおば' while 'oba' is 'おば', then doesn't simply missing out one 'お' when inputting to the translation software explain the mistranslation. How does the Kanji come into it? Am I wrong in assuming that any Japanese word can potentially written in kana or is that just not done?

  11. Michèle Sharik said,

    June 15, 2018 @ 12:26 pm

    My question is: if it’s a packet of leaves, why are we calling it a seed packet?

  12. krogerfoot said,

    June 15, 2018 @ 8:53 pm

    @Francis Boyle, any Japanese word can be written in kana, but my point was this mistake seems extremely unlikely to be made by a Japanese speaker. It's certainly possible that whoever typed おば meant to type おおば and didn't notice the mistake, especially if the translation software doesn't display what you input along with the possible translations. But in a language like Japanese with few sounds, there are lots of homophones, so using kanji-conversion systems means paging through a number of possible alternatives for almost every word—kind of like predictive text.

    Typing おば on a Japanese keyboard would call up 叔母, 伯母 (aunt), 御婆 (lady), 尾羽 (bird's tail), and the beginnings to other words, all of which would be instantly apparent to a Japanese speaker that おば and not おおば had been input. That's why I suspect that the package was designed by a non-Japanese speaker.

  13. krogerfoot said,

    June 15, 2018 @ 9:19 pm

    Actually, a better explanation would be this: To find the translation of 大葉, you'd type おおば into a dictionary or translation software input. Then, you'd need to select from 大葉, 大場, 大庭, 大羽, and several other homophones in order to get the translation you want.

    A Japanese speaker would know that they wanted the English for "big leaf," not "large place," "courtyard," or "sardine." If instead they were presented with choices that start with お and not おお, they'd know right away that they'd made a mistake.

    Whoever got "aunt" as the translation must not have understood enough Japanese to know that they had typed in the wrong word.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    June 15, 2018 @ 9:45 pm

    Naturellement!

  15. Francis Boyle said,

    June 16, 2018 @ 12:26 am

    Thanks krogerfoot, that makes it a lot clearer. I know about the homophone issue in Chinese due to the discussion here of the infamous "gan" but I hadn't realised there is a similar issue in Japanese. Nonetheless, I'm still leaning towards carelessness and an overconfidence in translation software rather than lack of knowledge of Japanese as the most likely explanation. The thing about Google (and indeed most contemporary software) is that it tries to give you what you want and leaves out what it guesses you don't want. So if I put "シソおば" into Google Translate I get "Shiso Aunt" and nothing else. By contrast, if I enter the correct "シソおおば" GT gives me "Shiso-ona" with "シソ大葉" as a suggestion. So GT gives me no reason to suspect I've made any mistake. From there all it takes is for the careless, or overworked, (or lazy) copy-writer/translator to ignore whatever the keyboard software is saying and you have "Aunt Perilla".

  16. krogerfoot said,

    June 16, 2018 @ 6:30 pm

    An explanation I considered but forgot to mention is that the final o-sound in "shiso" could fool the inputter into feeling that they had typed the right number of Os to get しそおおば.

    I guess one way to investigate my conjecture that whoever decided on "Aunt Perilla" as the English translation was not a Japanese speaker would be to find out where this product comes from. I go to Daiso pretty regularly, so I can probably put some shoe leather into this today.

  17. krogerfoot said,

    June 17, 2018 @ 8:55 am

    I got to Daiso fifteen minutes before they closed and looked through their selection of seeds. All of them had English glosses for only the name of the seed, and the only one besides Aunt Perilla that struck me as odd was "F1 cucumber" (capitalization sic). Like the しそ大葉 packet, all of the packages seemed to have Chinese and Korean names in the lower lefthand corner of the package.

    The shiso ōba at Daiso comes from China, while the other ao-shiso "Green Perilla" variety on offer is grown domestically. All of the packages had a uniform design, suggesting they all came from the same place. I got a bit excited to see 中葉しゅんぎく "Garland Mum," thinking we had a pattern of female relative names, but it turned out to be nakaba shun-giku 中葉春菊 "middle crown garland," a type of 菊 kiku chrysanthemum.

    Daiso is a major discount chain based in Hiroshima, but they source their products from all over the world, so it's not unlikely that the package design and printing is done wherever it's cheapest to do so. In addition to their stores in Japan and all throughout Asia, they have outlets in N. America, Brazil, Mexico, the Middle East, and Africa as well, and it's always entertaining to look through the slapdash translations in half a dozen languages on most of their packaging.

    F1 cucumber seems pretty well known to Google as a hybrid variety. The Japanese name was 一代交配ときわ地這胡瓜 ichidai kōhai tokiwa jibai kyūri "first generation crossbreed Tokiwa ground-crawling cucumber." Looking around for this name brought up what seems to be a more common rendering 地這い jibai, from 地 chi "ground, earth" + 這いhai "crawling," familiar from 這い這い・はいはい "baby's crawl." With regard to cucumbers, 地這い栽培jibai saibai seems to mean trellis-grown cucumbers, which doesn't mean a thing to me. The Chinese gloss on this was "F1 黄瓜."

    Anyway, for further research: パクチ pakuchi, cilantro/coriander (Thai phakchi), widely known and reviled throughout Japan, was glossed as "Pakuthe." チンゲン菜 chingensai bok choy was glossed as "Pak Choi," which may be another clue about where the English names are being sourced.

  18. krogerfoot said,

    June 17, 2018 @ 8:58 am

    I put a Russian-novel-length comment here laden with links about my investigative trip to Daiso, which I'm hoping went to spam rather than disappearing forever.

  19. tangent said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 12:56 am

    "F1" is standard genetics terminology for a hybrid. It doesn't mean a specific plant variety.

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