There’s something so very very English (or British) about marmalade.
It’s not on the list of 100 English icons voted for by the public, but a full English Breakfast is.
And without marmalade, a full English Breakfast would, to my mind, be, um, well, half empty.
It turns out that even D. H. Lawrence — that writer of that “not very British” lubricious poem about figs — made it, as can be deduced from what sounds like a WI motivational quote (“I got the blues thinking of the future, so I left off and made some marmalade. It’s amazing how it cheers one up to shred oranges and scrub the floor.”)
Naturalized Brit Ruby Wax said, “I once did an on-line interview where I had to write the answers to the questions. I never speak that slowly. It was like having sex in marmalade.”
Noel Coward opined that
“Wit ought to be a glorious treat like caviar; never spread it about like marmalade.”
Virginia Woolf’s husband listed it as one of the ingredients of, presumably, a highly nourishing tea:
A spread of boiled haddock, apple tart, tea, toast, butter, marmalade, & cake in front of a huge fire awaited us.
L. Woolf , Let. 30 Nov., 1917
Yes, all in all, it’s a very British institution, but it’s also one of those thousands of words English has borrowed from other languages – Portuguese in this instance.
So British is it, in fact, that it first appeared in English (1480, in the form marmelate) a full sixty years before its appearance in any other European language, besides Portuguese.
Words from Portuguese
Portuguese loanwords in English cannot compete numerically with those from the other Western Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian). Nevertheless, the OED lists 398 (compared, for instance, to more than four times that number for Spanish, at 1748).
English borrowed them from Portuguese, but Portuguese borrowed them too.
A handful of these 398 words derive(d) from existing Portuguese words, e.g. lambada (from lambar, “to beat, to whip”). But most draw on the many languages with which Portuguese merchants, explorers and seamen came into contact during Portugal’s history as a seafaring and colonizing power. (In fact, Portugal was the last European colonizer to relinquish a colony, when East Timor achieved independence in 2002.)
Because of this rich colonial history, Portuguese has one of the highest number of mother-tongue speakers in the world: ranking sixth, according to the Ethnologue, below Arabic and above Bengali.
An exotic cornucopia
In their search for the fabled spices of the East and other precious commodities, the Portuguese traded in much of the known world, particularly Africa and the Far East, and, of course, Brazil (now the country with the largest number of Portuguese speakers). Many of the words Portuguese has given to English reflect encounters with local flora and fauna, e.g. cougar, jaguar, macaw, mongoose, and mango. Others describe artefacts encountered in indigenous cultures, e.g. fetish, marimba, and maracas.
We first encounter many of these Portuguese loanwords in late-sixteenth- or seventeenth-century English translations of foreign explorers’ descriptions of the lands they visited, translations that vividly convey contemporary fascination with the “new worlds” being opened up to Europeans.
Varied origins of Portuguese loanwords
As varied as the meanings of those words are their origins. While Portuguese was the immediate vehicle for transmission into English, the Portuguese language itself often “borrowed” them from other languages, including Arabic, Indian subcontinent languages such as Malayalam and Marathi, and African and South American languages. Mango and maraca illustrate that; the first is probably immediately either from Malayalam māṅṅa, a Dravidian Indian language related to Tamil, or from Malay mangga, and before that in either case from Tamil mankay, from man “mango tree” + kay “fruit”; the second is from Tupi or Guaraní, both South American languages.
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But marmalade has a longer, European history
…if you go back far enough.
The immediate source is the Portuguese word for “quince”, marmelo + the suffix -ada (= -ade).
As the OED explains, originally marmalade referred to “a preserve consisting of a sweet, solid, quince jelly resembling chare de quince [= “quince flesh”] but with the spices replaced by flavourings of rose water and musk or ambergris, and cut into squares for eating”.
It must therefore have been similar to the luscious, toothsome quince jelly that is now fashionable as an accompaniment to cheese. Often, it is the imported Spanish delicacy dulce de membrillo (literally, “sweet of quince”, the Spanish word membrillo deriving, like the Portuguese, from Latin.)
That quince jelly (chare de quince) is mentioned in the Paston Letters:
I pray yow that ye wol send me a booke wyth chardeqweyns that I may have of in the mo[r]nyngges, for the eyeres be not holsom in this town.
1451, M. Paston in Paston Lett. & Papers (2004) I. 247,
(I assume that “booke” here reflects this OED meaning: “A packet of some other commodity bound together for ease of handling or dispensing”.)
Later, as the OED explains: “Subsequently: a conserve made by boiling fruits (now usually oranges and other citrus fruits) in water…typically containing embedded shreds of rind…Often with the name of the fruit or other dominant ingredient prefixed, as apricot…onion…quince When none is specified, orange marmalade is now usually meant.”
Which explains why onion marmalade is so called, though it seems a long way from jentacular marmalade.
[I wanted an adjective relating to breakfast that isn’t breakfast used attributively , and jentacular is it — such a shame it is obsolete.]
Where does the word marmelo come from?
It didn’t descend angelically out of thin air.
In etymology, the “less than” < symbol is used to show the source language on the right, and the receiving language on the left, e.g. English < French. But, as we read from left to right, I think it’s easier to reverse the direction and the symbols, which gives us this for the long road marmalade has travelled.
Classical Greek μῆλον mēlon (= apple), μέλι meli = (honey)
> Hellenistic Greek μελίμηλον melímēlon (summer-apple, apple grafted on quince)
> classical Latin mēlomeli (honey flavoured with quinces) + melimēla (plural) (a variety of sweet apple)
> post-classical Latin malomellum (quince or sweet apple).
> Portuguese marmelo (1527) but marmeleira (quince orchard, 973).
As the OED suggests, “Close medieval trading relations between England and Portugal may account for the very early borrowing of the Portuguese word in English.”
So there we have it: a word for a quintessentially British preserve whose roots can ultimately be traced back, if you like, to Homer and beyond.
many a tall tree did he uproot and cast upon the ground,
aye, root and apple blossom therewith.
πολλὰ δ᾽ ὅ γε προθέλυμνα χαμαὶ βάλε δένδρεα μακρὰ
αὐτῇσιν ῥίζῃσι καὶ αὐτοῖς ἄνθεσι μήλων.
Homer, Iliad, Bk 9, l. 542.
I don’t have a sweet tooth, really. I think I’ll go and have some Marmite on toast.