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Asparagus

The name of this delightful vegetable has swung from classical Latin to rustic reinvention and back during its history in English.

It first appears in English around 1000. Its name was taken from medieval Latin sparagus but by the sixteenth century it had come sperach or sperage. It might well have stayed like that had it not been for herbalists, who knew the classical Latin name was asparagus, itself borrowed from the Greek. Their influence meant that that name became quite widely known during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries alongside the older names. Nicholas Culpeper, for example, headed an entry in his herbal of 1653 as “Asparagus, Sparagus, or Sperage”, thus covering all bases.

Non-scholars had trouble with asparagus and did what the medieval Latin writers had done — leave off the unstressed initial vowel, so making it sparagus again. But they went one step further, converting it by folk etymology into forms that seemed to make more sense, either sparagrass or sparrowgrass. The latter form became common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries:

So home, and having brought home with me from Fenchurch Street a hundred of sparrowgrass, cost 18d.

Diary, by Samuel Pepys, 20 April 1667.

In the eighteenth century sparrowgrass was so much the standard and polite term that John Walker commented in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary in 1791: “‘Sparrow-grass’ is so general that ‘asparagus’ has an air of stiffness and pedantry”. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was also called Battersea grass, from the name of the London suburb alongside the Thames in whose market gardens it was grown.

During the nineteenth century the wheel turned yet again, in part because of pedagogical opposition to a form considered to be no more than an ignorant mistake, bringing asparagus to the fore and relegating sparrowgrass to what the New English Dictionary rather loftily described in 1885 as “dialect or vulgar” status. This is supported by examples in fiction which attempt to render the voices of lower-class characters:

I remember my lars’ customer, the very lars’ customer that ever I ’ad. He was a Mr. Moses Gluckstein, a city gent and very pleasant and fond of sparrowgrass and chokes.

The War in the Air, by H G Wells, 1908. Chokes are artichokes.

Slavey came in while I was eating it, and caught me picking it up with my fingers. Next morning she says to my missis, so missis told me, “’Ow does master eat ’is sparrowgrass when ’e’s out with company, mum?” says she.

Lord Raingo, by Arnold Bennett, 1926. A slavey was a hard-worked live-in maidservant.

Sparrowgrass is still around, though in print only as a historical reference, and the vegetable is still sometimes called grass in the greengrocery trade.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 14 Sep. 2013

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 14 September 2013.