What’s in a name?

We probably all know that the wellies we might wear to go on walks through muddy fields are named after the Duke of Wellington, the “Iron Duke”. wellies_with_flowers Perhaps less well known is the link between the mac – in British English, at any rate – that we might also wear and its inventor, the deviser of the waterproof cloth from which macs are made, Charles Macintosh (1766–1843), the Scottish inventor who patented the cloth. Many units of scientific measurement, both everyday and more specialized, are named after their discoverers: the Italian physicist Count Alessandro Volta gave us volts, the Scottish engineer James Watt gave us, er, … watts, and the Belfast-born Lord Kelvin gave his name to the units in which absolute temperature is measured.

Such words, derived from someone’s name, are technically called eponyms, a word created in the 19th century from the Greek epōnumos “given as a name, giving one’s name to someone or something”, from epi “upon” + onoma “name” (ἐπώνυμος; ἐπί + ὄνομα, Aeolic ὄνυμα name). The same Greek word for “name” has given English also anonymous and synonym(ous). And when people refer to the eponymous hero of such and such a novel, e.g. Fielding’s Tom Jones, they mean that the title of the novel is its protagonist’s name. In modern Greek, επώνυμο (eponimo) is the word for “surname”.


greengage – This is a type of greenish or yellow-green plum, beloved of jam-makers. As the OED defines it, “The small oval fruit of a cultivated variety of plum, Prunus domestica subsp. italica, which has yellow to green skin and very sweet juicy flesh, and is used for eating and for making desserts and preserves”.

No less an authority than the BBC Gardeners’ World praises greengages lip-smackingly:

If your standard Victoria plum is good plonk, then a perfectly ripe greengage is a fine wine in a vintage year.

The word apparently combines the colour of the fruit with the name of the botanist and cricket enthusiast Sir William Gage (1695-1744) who, around 1725, first introduced it to Britain.

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The first citation in the OED of the fruit being called “green-gage” (hyphenated) is from 1718, in the work of the cleric John Laurence, a sort of Monty Don with a dog collar who, to judge by his literary output, must have spent more time tending his garden than writing sermons.

The Clergyman’s Recreation, Shewing the Pleasure and Profit of the Art of Gardening (1714) was his first venture into publishing. His third book in this genre, The Fruit-Garden Kalendar (1718), contains the relevant citation:

We are also now presented with some of the most excellent Plums, viz. the Blue and White Perdigrans, the Sheen, or Fotheringa …, the Green Gage, the Muscle, and the Orleance.

(A plum called a Muscle? No wonder it didn’t catch on.)

It was not until some time before 1768, again according to the OED, that the connection between Sir William and the fruit was made explicit, in an 1843 book  by Lewis Weston Dillwyn, cataloguing the plants of an earlier horticulturist: Hortus Collinsonianus: an account of the plants cultivated by the late Peter Collinson, Esq., F.R.S., arranged alphabetically according to their modern names, from the catalogue of his garden,… :

I was on a visit to Sir William Gage..; he told me that..in compliment to him the Plum was called the Green Gage; this was about the year 1725.

A fruit fit for a queen

The common or garden Victoria plum, damned with faint praise by the Gardeners’ World horticultural savants, was named after Queen Victoria. But it is not the only variety of plum with a royal connection.

Queen Claude, portrayed 30 years after her death in Catherine de Médicis’ Book of Hours

In French a greengage is une reine-Claude (Queen Claude) after Claude (1499-1524), the wife of Francis 1 of France

According to the OED, “it was common in early modern France for noteworthy varieties of fruit to be named in honour of queens and other members of the nobility.”

The French name was also borrowed by other European languages: Dutch reine-claude (1763), German Reineclaude, now usually Germanized as die Reneklode (17th cent.), Swedish renklo (1835; earlier as †reine claude (1770), †reinklo (1825)), Danish reineclaude (1802 as †ræneklode; also reneklode), and Italian susina Regina Claudia “Queen Claudia Plum”.

All of which makes greengage a sort of multilingual eponym.

At the entry for greengage, the OED cross-refers to Reine Claude, which it defines as “A cultivated variety of plum; esp. the greengage.”

That word first appears in John Evelyn (the diarist)’s Kalendarium hortense: or, The gard’ners almanac · 8th ed., with … additions., 1691.

A Guardian quotation from 20 January, 1971 unites the two names:

 It is the land of … the honeyed Reine-Claude greengages.

The long-established British nursery Thomson & Morgan sells “greengages Reine Claude”.

And a translated French history of food from (1992) has this:

Greengages are called after the eighteenth century Sir William Gage, who brought the French Reine-Claude over to England, where it acquired a new English name.

Dr Johnson wondering what apophthegm will adequately convey his contempt for froggy words.

Whether the greengage and the reine-Claude are now exactly the same only a horticulturist could tell me. (The Thomson and Morgan catalogue entry suggests to me that greengage is generic and reine-Claude specific.) I am left wondering if Sir William changed the name because it was easier to pronounce. Or was it because of anti-French sentiment? We’ll probably never know.

But the notion brings to my mind Dr Johnson’s disparaging remarks in his 1755 Dictionary about certain French words being used in English, e.g. “ruse: a French word neither elegant nor necessary”.

For whatever reason, he found the word’s “trick” meaning objectionable, despite its going back to the sixteenth century and despite his using a quotation from the eminently respectable John Ray’s 1722 The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation.


Apples and pears and greengages

Back in the twentieth century, greengage became part of rhyming slang (though I don’t know how actively used it now is). The OED gives it two meanings: “the stage” (1931) and, as the plural greengages,  “wages” (1932), and includes a quote from Orwell’s Collected Essays (written before 1950), the fuller text of which is as follows:

Rhyming slang. I thought this was extinct, but it is far from it. The hop-pickers used these expressions freely: A dig in the grave, meaning a shave. The hot cross bun meaning the sun. Greengages, meaning wages. They also use the abbreviated rhyming slang, e.g. ‘Use your twopenny’ for ‘Use your head.’ This is arrived at like this: Head, loaf of bread, loaf, twopenny loaf, twopenny.

Hop-pickers at the start of the 1948 picking season, Kent. Note the age range.
Hop-pickers at the start of the 1948 picking season, Kent. Note the age range.

Hop-pickers were often East End families (i.e. from the home of Cockney) who mass-migrated to Kent for the hop-picking season.


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