aborigine / aubergine

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It all started with an entry in the "Sic!" section of Michael Quinion's World Wide Words newsletter #614, on 11/22/08 (boldface added):

Rachael Weiss found an item on a menu in Turkey: "Aubergine Kebap. Ground veal patties with aborigine arranged on a layer of sauteed pita bread, topped with tomatoes and spices." She observed, "We white Australians haven't treated the original owners of our land very well, but this seems to go too far."

This is not just a simple substitution of aborigine (in the sense 'aboriginal inhabitant of Australia') for aubergine (a mostly British variant referring to the egg-shaped fruit of a plant in the genus Solanum, eaten as a vegetable, and otherwise known in English as eggplant), since the two versions occur together in this very short text. The menu writer seems to be treating the two as alternative versions of "the same word", referring to a foodstuff, perhaps along the lines of aluminium and aluminum; aboriginal inhabitants of Australia probably don't come into it at all.

The variant aborigine 'eggplant' is widespread in food writing (especially in menu items and recipes). Literally widespread, in writing about food from places from Greece and Turkey through China and Japan (these from the first hundred Google webhits on {aborigine aubergine} on 11/25/08; no doubt I've missed some cuisines in this search).  I'll give a sampling of these occurrences, and then talk about what we might make of them.

First, some cites that have the two spellings occurring together. Starting with Greece, from a list of local products on the island of Santorini:

… White aborigine (eggplant), round courgette and katsouni.

These three vegetable grow only here on the island.

The aubergine is white and doesn’t have the bitterness of the purple kind. It has a sweet taste and has only a few seeds.

and a Greek recipe from the Olive Oil Council:

Aubergine Filo Pastry Dish:

Marinate – lamb in salt, pepper. Coat with thyme, salt, pepper, olive oil, garlic, breadcrumbs, cook in oven. Cut aubergine into strips grill slightly. Sauté croquettes, carrots, leeks, garlic, onions, parsley, olive oil, thyme, rosemary, oregano, goat cheeses fill aborigine rolling up, bake for 10 minutes …

On to Turkey, in the menu item above, and Syria, from a site on the "food and gastronomy" of Syria:

We can not talk about Syrian meze without mentioning the variety of dip dishes. The dips are usually made of one particular main ingredient like aborigine, chick pea, pepper or dried yogurt; seasoned with many spices and nuts. These so called dips are eaten with koubeh, kebab or just simply pita bread. They add flavor and color to the table and are irresistible. Baba-ghannouj (Aubergine dip): A puree of grilled, pealed and mashed aubergine mixed with green and red pepper, …

Then to Mediterranean/Arab food in Israel, in a comment following up on a glowing recommendation of the restaurant Tishreen:

15/10/2008 – sam goldraez …

wowNamed after the month it was opened in 2004 (tishreen is Arabic for October) this sophisticated restaurant has an autumnal atmosphere with its straw-encrusted walls lined with antiques and wine bottles. Locals enjoying long lunches and late dinners order Mediterranean-inspired dishes from the mosaic-tiled wood oven which turns out 'aborigine (aubergine) stuffed with pesto and cheese' as well as excellent muhammar, an Arabic pizza topped with chicken and onion slices.

I'll return to the Middle East in a while, but now it's a skip to South Asia. First, from the Indian-food section of a site of Asian recipes:

Lamb with Aubergine and Dal:

… 2. Add the meat, split peas, lentils, aborigine and tomatoes and stir well. Add the chili, turmeric, salt and mint.

And from a site of Bangladeshi recipes, one for Mixed Vegetables Niramish, the ingredients for which include “200g (80) aubergine” and the instructions for which include “When vegetables are half cooked add aborigine and sweet pumpkin.”

Finally, on to a China, in a recipe for Aubergine in Spicy Sauce, on a site of recipes from all over:

… Comments: The aubergine (aborigine) is called k'un-lun tzu kua by the Chinese, meaning "Malayan purple melon." The name is evidence that, even though this remarkable vegetable has been documented in China as a common vegetable as far back as the Zhou dynasty (1050 BC-AD 249), it arrived via southeast Asia. Very possibly it originated in India, traveled to Southeast Asia, then into China.

Now the tour begins again, this time with items that have only aborigine. From Turkey (transported to the U.S.), an entry in P. Kerim Friedman's blog:

January 28, 2006

I had lunch today at a terrific Turkish restaurant in Sunnyside, NY. On the menu was “Aborigines in Olive Oil.” At first I thought perhaps they had discovered Hufu, but no, it was simply aubergines. Even as I type that word on my computer, the spell checker helpfully suggests “aborigines” …

[As does mine! For aubergine it suggests aborigine and aborigines. So there's a remote possibility that some of the hits for aborigine on its own are Cupertinos, induced by a spellchecker with a U.S. English dictionary that didn't have aubergine in it. But that's not very likely, because the writers of these menus and recipes would have had to be entering this material on a computer running a spellchecker, type aubergine, or something close to it, and then accept a correction.]

On to Syria, now from a report on a restaurant in Damascus:

… First out of the blocks is Rob’s single puff with cheese in it, which he generously divvies up between the three of us. Straight after, hummous, tabouleh, vine leaves and stuffed aubergines (or aborigines as they’re described on the menu!).

Then to a recipe (source not specified, but on a heart-healthy food site) for the (originally) Palestinian dish maqlouba, found in several versions in the Arabic-speaking and Arab-influenced world:

… 2 lbs. lamb shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 medium cauliflower, in large florets OR 1 large eggplant (aborigine) in thick slices …

Then to Iran (transported to the U.K.), in a review of the London restaurant Iran-E-Ma:

I had lunch at Iran e Ma today with another Iranian friend. This restaurant is in a dark and dingy basement. The decor is a copy of Behesht in Harlesden. Even the menu on their website carries the same English errors and typos of Behesht's website (Aborigine means Aubergine!!!!!), but the waiter said they are not owned by the same people.

And to Thailand, first in situ. In a comment on a uk.answers site:

I saw this on the menu of a restaurant in Thailand: "Red curry with pork and aborigine"

( I think it was meant to be aubergine)

And then transported to the U.K.  Aborigine appears in the menu listings for three dishes offered by the Thai restaurant Siam Cottage in Chelmsford, Essex. Here's one:

MIXED SEAFOOD GREEN CURRY                                                                                     £9.95

A famous Thai green curry with squid, mussels, prawns and cod fish cooked in coconut cream with Thai green curry paste;  add Sliced bamboo shoots, long green beans, green peas and aborigines.  Garnished  with shredded long red and green chilies and Thai basil leaves.

Finally, to Japan. From Frommer’s review of the yakitori restaurant Manpuku in Tokyo:

… Manpuku offers an English-language menu of yakitori, tuna cutlet with wasabi, braised tofu with meat, and other pub grub, along with more unusual choices such as stir-fried garlic horse meat and "grilled aborigine" (not to worry, they mean aubergine, or eggplant).

(An aside: the eggplant seems to be a truly pan-Asian vegetable.)

What to make of all this?

From the examples above — especially those with the two versions occurring together — it should be clear that these aren't just inadvertent errors, aiming for aubergine and getting aborigine instead, either as a simple spelling error or as an error in word retrieval. Native English speakers seem to be inclined to say that people are "confusing" two different words, which makes their behavior all the more remarkable to native speakers because, of course, the words SOUND so different (aubergine in three syllables, aborigine in five, with accent on a syllable that doesn't even apear in aubergine).

Still, this "confusion" account is suggestive. Word confusions do exist, notably in cases where distinct words are similar in form and overlap in meaning (founder/flounder, for instance). But many references to "confusion" between words, or to "mistaking" one word for another, turn out not to involve mistaking the referents of words, but instead have to do with SPELLING. Consider, for instance, these two items from Brians's Common Errors in English Usage:

bullion/bouillon: Gold bricks are bullion. Boil down meat stock to get bouillon. It’s an expensive mistake to confuse bullion with bouillon in a recipe.

aloud/allowed: “Aloud” means “out loud” and refers to sounds (most often speech) that can be heard by others. But this word is often misused when people mean “allowed,” meaning “permitted.”

The problems here are entirely with spelling.

So it is, I think, with aubergine/aborigine.

Remember that this usage puzzle appears in written language (though I'll get to a spoken example in a little while) — indeed in the writing of people most of whom are not native speakers of English. And the target word is a specialized term of British English, one not related at all to the eggplant words of the languages in question (or at best only very very distantly related; see the OED's entertaining etymological note on the Anglo-Indian eggplant word brinjal). On top of that, the word aborigine is (outside of Australia) a rare word.

And the relationship between its spelling and its pronunciation is exceptional, in that it has final E representing /i/ (rather than being "silent"), a property it shares with a small number of other words, among them epitome, catastrophe, hyperbole, apocope, synecdoche, calliope. So someone (especially a non-native speaker) coming across the spelling ABORIGINE might well assume that the -GINE is pronounced like the name JEAN (perhaps with a fricative rather than an affricate), with the result that the pronunciation of ABORIGINE will be close to that of AUBERGINE; the connection between the two would be facilitated by the shared A … B … R.

Something like this story probably lies behind this anecdote, from Oliver Cross in the Yorkshire Evening Standard last year:

… Aron [the writer’s son] was talking to a Turkish friend recently.

The Turk was a very nice man who spoke good English but had a strange blind spot. He thought an indigenous Australian was called an aubergine, as opposed to an Aborigine.

There followed, says Aron, a very surreal and funny conversation, which I should think it did because, of all the words you could confuse, aubergine and Aborigine possibly offer the richest comic possibilities.

Once again, confusion-talk. My interpretation of this event is simply that the Turk thought that ABORIGINE was pronounced as something close to English aubergine. A mistake, but not actually a confusion of words, much less a confusion of eggplants with Australian natives, though that's how it would sound to a native speaker of English.

Now, I have no idea how many people — in particular, how many people associated with menus, recipes, and the like — think that ABORIGINE is pronounced like aubergine. I invite readers who have some first-hand experience with such speakers to e-mail their reports to me. (I'm not opening the posting to comments in general, because there are so many directions people could go on this topic, but I am soliciting reports on this specific issue.)

It seems clear, though, that some people think that AUBERGINE and ABORIGINE are alternative spellings of "the same word", referring to eggplants, and that some people seem to think that ABORIGINE is in fact the correct spelling of this word. These misapprehensions might have arisen several times in different places, but the frequency of the occurrences suggests that these spellings have diffused from writer to writer: people with an imperfect grasp of English spelling see them in print, in menus and recipes especially, and then reproduce them in their own writing.

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