“Earth Apple”: The Potato in Five Languages

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This is a discussion, sparked purely by my curiosity, of “potato” being translated as “earth apple” or “apple of the earth” in various languages — French, variants of German, Persian, Hebrew, and Dutch/Afrikaans.

If you’ve ever been to France, you might have learned that “French fries” (or “chips” or “fries”, depending on where you’re from) are pommes frites.

And if you’ve ever taken a basic French class, you’d have learned that a “pomme” is an… apple.

So what gives? Why do French people call fries “fried apples”?

It’s actually because it’s short for pommes de terre frites, or “fried potatoes”, or literally, “fried apples of the earth“.

illustration of earth apple potato web

Because in a few languages, that’s what we call potatoes — earth apples.

I was curious as to how this came about, and so I did a bit of digging to find out:

  • What languages call potatoes “earth apples”?
  • What’s the history of calling them earth apples?

Here are the answers.

Origins of Potatoes being “Apples of the Earth”

Potatoes have been around for many thousands of years. They’re nothing new. So there’s a lot of etymological history here.

It sounds strange to call potatoes “earth apples”, but it’s a bit less strange to know that “apples” was (in a few languages) just a generic word for “fruit”.

The French word “pomme” derives from the Latin word “pomum”, meaning “any kind of fruit from a tree”.

The same word “pomum” is the historical root for the modern Italian word pomodoro, which literally is “a fruit of gold” or “golden fruit”, and means “tomato” (sorry, not a potato in this case).

French used to call tomatoes pomme d’or (fruit/apple of gold), too. Similarly, an orange used to be a pomme d’orenge In modern French, a pomme de jacque is a jackfruit, a tropical fruit (not found in France, but found in its territory New Caledonia).

In Old English, an “æppel” was any kind of fruit, as well. A “fingeræppla”, or “finger apple”, was a date, and an “eorþæppla” or “earth apple”, was a cucumber. In Middle English, during the 1400s, “appel of paradis” meant banana.

Note: I say “five languages” for etymological simplicity because I’m grouping together German dialects, including Swiss German, for simplicity; and also lumping together Afrikaans and Dutch as their histories are tightly intertwined.

Potato, or earth apple in French, Hebrew, Persian, German dialects, and Dutch
The humble earth apple

French: Pommes de terre

French was the first language (other than Persian, with which I grew up) in which I came across potatoes being “apples of the earth”.

As mentioned above, pommes is derived from the Latin word pomum, which refers to any fruit from a tree, and Old French had various other distinct fruits referred to as pommes.

The Catalunyan language Catalán, which also calls an apple a pome, calls a potato a patata, as it does in Spanish. (See here for a discussion of words in Catalan of various origins.)

Swiss German/German dialects: Herdöpfel/Erdäpfel

Both these words in Swiss German (really just different spellings/translations of the same concept) mean “earth apple”.

A few regional dialects in Germany also retain Erdäpfel, with some variants in pronunciation and spelling.

In modern standard German, an apple is a Kartoffel. This sounds related (like a mispronunciation), but actually derives from the older Tartüffel (18th c.), from Italian tartufolo, diminutive of the word for “truffle”.

Dutch: aardappel

Dutch has a strong connection with German and many German dialects, and so aardappel is borrowed from a German dialect.

Afrikaans, a language closely related to Dutch, also has the same word, just spelled slightly differently — aartappel.

Persian: “سیب زمینی” (siib zamini)

Persian was the first language I knew in which I came across potatoes being “earth apples”.

In Persian, “سیب” (siib) means “apple” and “زمینی” (zamini) means “of the earth”.

Given Persian has a high percentage of French loan words, it’s likely that this is a translation of pommes de terre that was made into Persian.

Hebrew: תפוח אדמה (“land apple”)

Hebrew is an unusual language on this list, not being European.

In Hebrew, a potato is a “תפוח אדמה” (tapuach adamah), or “apple of the land”.

But given Hebrew is a fairly modern language, and highly influenced by European languages, it’s likely that this is a borrowed translation from a variant of German. (Not Yiddish; in Yiddish people most often say bulbes, which came from Lithuanian.)

Hebrew is closely related to Arabic (they’re of the same language family), but Arabic uses a word similar to “batata” in both regional dialects and Modern Standard Arabic.

Chinese: 土豆 (tǔdòu) — Earth… bean

In Chinese, the word for “potato” is 土豆, pronounced tǔdòu in Mandarin.

(Actually Cantonese uses a different word normally, 薯仔 (syu4zai2), which uses the Mandarin character for yam, plus 仔, a common suffix character in Cantonese.)

OK, 土豆 is technically “earth bean”, and so not really “earth apple” like the other translations here. But I wanted to include it because it’s Chinese, it has the character for “earth” just like “earth apple”, and Chinese so unconnected with the other languages!

Confusingly, the “earth bean” in Taiwan refers to a peanut. Makes more sense to me.

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