Monday, 19 October 2009

onion and union

Phonologically this is straightforward, but what the heck happened semantically?

Latin ūniōn- meant "oneness, unity" - understandably, since it's derived from ūnus "one". But it also meant "a single large pearl", and "a kind of single onion". Onion is from Anglo-Norman vngeon, oignon, oinion etc, in the 12th-13th centuries, while union is borrowed from French union in the 15th century.

So what's the connection between "oneness" and "onion" and "pearl"? The OED says

According to the classical Latin agricultural writer Columella, the peasants used ūniō for a certain variety of onion because it put forth no shoots, i.e. it represented a single entity. The application of the word to a pearl may represent an independent derivation from ūnus one, alluding to the fact that it was worn alone, or it may be a transfer from the sense ‘onion’, with reference to the similarity in shape.

3 comments :

Adam Roberts said...

Sounds like casting about in the dark, to me. Might as well say the word is derived from 'oinos', because wine-vinegar is onion-like ...

goofy said...

Well, Latin has the exact same word for "oneness", "pearl", and "onion", and this is as good an explanation for that fact as any.

Alex said...

There seems to be a good case that L ūniō is actually just a continuant of a PIE *wósHr =~ 'onion' -- see for instance the first mention of Hittite at MMcM on garlic.