A Vietnamese etymology for the Chinese word for "pineapple"?

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In "Shampoo salmon" (2/10/14), I called attention to the variety of opinions concerning the origins of the Chinese word bōluó 菠萝 / variant bōluó 波萝 ("pineapple").  Tom Nguyen suggests that another possible source is from Old Vietnamese *bla (> dứa /z̻ɨ̞̠ɜ˧ˀ˦/ with Northern accent – note the process of “turning into sibilant” of initial consonant cluster bl- in Vietnamese).

1.  Evidence from “Old Nom” character formation

Nom characters have a compound structure with ba 巴 or bà 婆 in front of a lateral consonant:

巴罗 ba la > trả (giả, return)
婆論 bà luận > trọn (completely)
… (from "Phật Thuyết")

2. Evidence from de Rhodes’s Dictionarium annamiticum, lusitanum et latinum (1651), which has a few entries with bl- consonant cluster:

Blẹo > trẹo (dẹo, warped)
Blanh > trang (gianh, thatch)

Hence, it is possible that bōluó 菠萝 comes from an Old Vietnamese etymon, such as *bla. It is interesting to compare similar words such as:

*njia  > dừa (coconut) (A)
*kwa  > dưa (melon)
*bla > dứa (pineapple)

These fruits (trees) come from tropical regions, clearly not from Central or Northern China (the governing centres of Han or Tang dynasties, hence language “nerve centres”).

Tom's two bobs' worth.


  1. Stephen O'Harrow said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 2:40 am

    Works for me – in fact, I believe you may be on to the trail of something that could prove not only interesting but eventually productive. We know, for example, that some words in the Fang Yen look a whole lot like items found in Tai (fish & river, for example) and one would expect Chu to show signs of such "Tai roots." Could we find Austro-Asiatic examples? It would be interesting if someone with a good knowledge of the Fan Yen and of historical linguistics could shine some light in that corner, My 2¢,,,

  2. Bob Ladd said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 2:56 am

    This is way off-topic, but definitely Language Log material. I refer to the final phrase of the post Tom's two bobs' worth. Since nobody ever says (or said) two bobs but always two bob, shouldn't this be punctuated Tom's two bob's worth?

    If bob is a normal invariant plural, like sheep, then I think the answer is definitely yes. I would write All the sheep's ears were tagged, not All the sheeps' ears were tagged (and as I type this the spell-checker tells me that sheeps' is wrong).

    But if bob actually represents the use of the singular form in quantity expressions like He's about six foot tall or It will cost you ten quid (cf. the expression quids in), then maybe the punctuation in the post is correct.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 8:05 am

    @Bob Ladd

    I wavered back and forth about where to put the apostrophe, even looked it up on Google and felt that the evidence was ambivalent. Your question is especially intriguing in light of the way Stephen O'Harrow ended his comment. What if he had written 2¢'s worth, or 2 cents' worth, or…?

  4. Bob Ladd said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 8:48 am

    @VHM: I also searched for "two bobs worth" on Google and found that (a) the expression is still alive and well in Australian English, where two bob has been decimalised to mean "twenty cents"; (b) most people don't put an apostrophe anywhere in the expression two bobs worth; and ( c ) most of the contexts where I found two bobs' worth with the apostrophe after the S involved a play on words with two people called Bob, or two bobsleds, or what have you (i.e. where it clearly was a plural possessive).

    As for the American version, I would probably write two cents' worth, but I confess to being the kind of person who likes to put the apostrophe in the right place. A very hasty Google search suggests that most people write it with no apostrophe, as with two bobs worth, but that there are decidedly more occurrences of two cents' worth than two bobs' worth, even including the ones involving wordplay.

    [Aside: how do you prevent bracket-C-bracket turning automatically into the copyright sign, other than leaving spaces as I did above?)

  5. Peter said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 9:28 am

    Not sure how to contact you directly, but I came across this article today which I thought might be of some interest to language log readers. In this, US Embassy officials point out grammar/spelling mistakes to point out that a letter supposedly written by them is fake.

    I found interesting that just from this short letter you'd easily see that Russian doesn't have an equivalent of the word "the" and it's pretty tricky for this native Russian speaker to know when to use it, and when not to.

  6. Doug Henning said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 9:54 am

    Whatever its etymology, I rather like how in its eventual form as 菠萝 the meaning of the two characters, 菠 bō "spinach" and 萝 luó "radish", nicely reflects the upper and lower halves of the pineapple itself.

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 10:58 am

    Do we know when pineapples were brought to Asia, and does that have any bearing on the Chinese etymology?

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 12:15 pm

    "two bob's worth" 7,680 ghits

    "two bobs / bobs' worth" 18,000 ghits
    Google returns "two bobs worth" and "two bobs' worth" together, and there are plenty of both.

  9. Stephen Hart said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 2:19 pm

    Jerry Friedman said,
    "Do we know when pineapples were brought to Asia,…"

    "India by 1550"

    "The plant was growing in China in 1594"

  10. Stephen Hart said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

    Regarding bob's, bobs and bob's, Google Ngram Viewer is informative. Also two cent's worth, a dollar's worth, etc.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 3:08 pm

    From an Australian friend:


    given that we Australians don't know how to use apostrophes; I would go for: "two bobs worth".

    But this seems more popular: "two bob's worth"


  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 6:06 pm

    Stephen Hart: Thanks. People spread things around fast in those days!

  13. January First-of-May said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 6:32 pm

    From one of the last comments on the "shampoo salmon" article:
    "Calling protein "eggwhite" is probably no more necessarily obvious in Chinese than it is in English, and I would think there would be several other terms that might have been invented."
    I have to add that, while I wasn't able to figure out from the surrounding comments whether this is the actual term in Chinese (or indeed in English), in Russian (my native language), the words for "protein" and "egg white" are indeed identical – presumably the former being derived from the latter (a fairly obvious formation from the root for "white"; the Russian word for "egg yolk" is identically formed from "yellow").

    Russian indeed doesn't have an equivalent of "the" (or indeed any articles at all), so proper article use is a big problem for Russians trying to learn English.
    I hope – haven't got any confirmation from native English speakers – that by now I'm experienced enough that I don't make particularly many errors of this type; anyone willing to nitpick my past LL comments for errors in English? I'm really interested whether there's anything that I still mess up consistently.

  14. maidhc said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 8:31 pm

    Both "bob" and "quid" have invariant plurals, so "six bob", "twenty quid", etc. So it's not like "cent/cents".

    Thus it should strictly be "two bob's worth".

    I believe that "Euro" is also supposed to have an invariant plural, but I've heard English-speaking people say things like "five Euros".

  15. Victor Mair said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 10:24 pm

    When I thanked my Australian friend for his "two bobs worth", he replied "afraid it was only thruppence worth".

  16. Stephen Hart said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 10:57 pm

    maidhc said, "Both "bob" and "quid" have invariant plurals, so "six bob", "twenty quid", etc. So it's not like "cent/cents"."

    Maybe a matter of dialect/register/code switching:

    Curtis James Jackson III

  17. Bob Ladd said,

    November 20, 2015 @ 3:10 am

    @maidhc, stephen hart: At least in the case of quid (as I said in my original comment), the expression quids in ('in profit, making a good deal') suggests that quid does have a distinct plural form, but that in its normal context (ten quid, etc.) we have a case of non-pluralisation in quantity expressions, as in five foot two. (I assume this is what Stephen Hart means by "register/dialect/code switching"). The trouble is that there doesn't seem to be any comparable expression for bob, in which we could test to see if bobs appears in a context other than quantity expressions.

  18. DMT said,

    November 20, 2015 @ 3:30 am

    In the "shampoo salmon" thread, ahkow mentioned that in Singaporean Mandarin, bōluó 菠萝 means jackfruit, while pineapple is huánglí 黃梨 or fènglí 鳳梨. I believe the same is true for Taiwanese Mandarin. Unlike the pineapple, the jackfruit is supposed to have originated in southern India and spread from there to southeast Asia. Do we know precisely what fruit the Old Vietnamese words referred to?

    The shape of the word bōluó 菠萝 is also reminiscent of the word that Taiwanese Mandarin speakers use for guavas: balà 芭樂. (I'm not sure what tone representation to use for the first syllable, if any – to my ears, it is a medium-pitch level tone, which doesn't fit into the Mandarin tone system. The spelling of this word as 芭樂 is a good example of the typically relaxed Taiwanese attitude regarding the relationship between sound and orthography. I have occasionally heard it pronounced as bālè, but I believe this is quite rare.)

    Guavas are another New World food item for which the terms varies extensively. Chinese wikipedia gives an interesting list of examples.

  19. DMT said,

    November 20, 2015 @ 3:38 am

    Actually, perhaps bālè for 芭樂 is not as rare as I had assumed. In this video, for example, the announcer pronounces it as balà (bǎlà?), but the voice-over speaker pronounces it as bālè. So is bālè the original pronunciation (from somewhere or other) and balà a Taiwanese idiosyncrasy, or is balà the original pronunciation and bālè a spelling pronunciation derived from the orthography?

  20. Matt said,

    November 20, 2015 @ 3:49 am

    To get back to the pineapples… It looks to me like in all of the examples given, an initial "bl-" is continued by "tr-". So isn't it a problem for this etymology that the contemporary word for "pineapple" begins with "d-" instead?

    (Or is "*bla" actually a well-accepted entry in the Old Vietnamese lexicon, known to be the ancestor of "dứa"? I realized while writing this comment that this is another way to read the first paragraph — my initial reading was that "*bla" was a hypothetical new etymon that could serve as the ancestor of both V. "dứa" and C. "bōluó".)

    Also, according to Wiktionary (I know, I know…), "dừa" and "dưa" (coconut, melon) were loaned from Chinese! If this is true, then even if "dứa" comes from Old Vietnamese "*bla", can the possibility that "*bla" itself was borrowed from "bōluó", not the other way around, be ruled out?

    I hope someone won't mind clarifying all this a bit — always love a good long-lost cognate story.

  21. Matt said,

    November 20, 2015 @ 4:50 am

    (Sorry, DMT, when I started writing your comment yours hadn't appeared yet. Now my first few words look like a passive-aggressive complaint about your widening of the fruit-net a bit, but obviously that wasn't what I intended.)

  22. Dan Luu said,

    November 20, 2015 @ 5:46 am

    It's more commonly known as " khóm/or thơm " for pineapple in Vietnamese. From whatever source, very few southern Vietnamese can recognize " dứa" as pineapple. Dứa is another plant, so called "pandan".

  23. Victor Mair said,

    November 20, 2015 @ 7:19 am

    From a Chinese historical linguist:

    No one has mentioned Shorto, A Mon-Khmer comparative dictionary (2006), which is the place to look if a word is suspected to have an Austro-asiatic origin. Nor is F.K. Li’s Handbook of comparative Tai mentioned. A Vietnamese etymology is neither here or there.

  24. david said,

    November 21, 2015 @ 8:13 pm

    @January First-of-May

    The first use of the word protein was by chemists studying egg white, e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerardus_Johannes_Mulder The word albumin is used to describe egg white and also a class of proteins such as serum albumin, the most common class of protein in the non-cellular part of blood.

  25. Quyet said,

    November 22, 2015 @ 12:54 am

    @dan luu

    Dứa is standard in northern Vietnam. Nobody says thơm for pineapple in the North.

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