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Jerusalem artichokes have nothing to do with Jerusalem

The Jerusalem artichoke — Helianthus tuberosus, to call this member of the sunflower or helianthus family by its scientific name — is in fact an originally New World root vegetable that was widely cultivated in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. Never very popular among European settlers there, it was eaten more widely in Europe, to which it was brought back for cultivation by French explorers; hence its early English name of “the French potato.” The French themselves, however, called it tupinambur, after the Tupinamba tribe of Brazil, a representative of which brought a Jerusalem artichoke to Paris as a gift in 1613.

But it was the Italians who gave us “Jerusalem artichoke.” Struck by the plant’s similarity to the sunflower with its yellow, daisylike flowers that turn to the sun and its ovoid, hairy leaves, and by its root’s resemblance to the root of an artichoke, they took to calling it, in some dialects, articiocco girasole, the “sunflower artichoke.” (The word girasole is formed from Italian girare, to turn, and sole, sun.) Yet at some point, girasole became confused in popular speech with the Italian name for Jerusalem, Gerusalemme, resulting in articiocco gerusalemme, which was carried to the United States by 19th-century Italian immigrants even as it was being forgotten in Italy. Today, Americans call their own native plant “Jerusalem artichoke,” Italians call it carciofo, a word that comes from Arabic, and few people in Jerusalem even know what it is. The tricks that language sometimes likes to play on us!

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com

Read more:  http://forward.com/articles/141337/