Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 27 November 2004

A Lexicographer writes

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‘Lord Rutherford,’ said my husband, looking up from the Telegraph and taking a glug of whisky.

He might as well communicate by flags, because ‘Lord Rutherford’ means a letter to the editor from a reader who knows no more about a subject than he does about atomic physics. This time it was marmalade. ‘I was told by the French owner of a well-known brand of jam,’ wrote the reader, ‘that the origin of the word marmalade is in fact the English mispronunciation of the French phrase ‘‘maladie de Marie’’. Mary, Queen of Scots, would visit her close ally the French king by sea from Scotland rather than risk the wrath of Elizabeth I by travelling through England. Mary suffered awful sea-sickness during the often choppy crossing. Eating portions of bitter Seville oranges was found to be an effective remedy for this illness. Hence the name of “guérir la maladie de Marie’’ (to cure Mary’s sickness) for small pieces of bitter Seville oranges.’

A likely story! When did these Marian visits to France during Elizabeth’s reign take place, then? And where does the French word marmelade come from, pray?

I’ve heard a less garbled version in which the supposed origin is ‘Marie est malade’. You might as well say mal de mer. But the truth, as a less Rutherfordian reader suggested the day before, is that marmalade comes from the Portuguese marmelada, from marmelo, ‘a quince’. The Portuguese got it, ‘with dissimilation of consonants’, as the OED neatly puts it, from the Latin melimelum, from Greek melimelon, as it were, ‘honey-apple’, melon being the Greek for ‘apple’, as malum is the Latin. In Spanish mermalada means ‘jam’, but once meant ‘quince preserve’, even though the Spanish for ‘quince’ is membrillo, also from melimelum. The English quince, like the Catalan codony, comes from Latin cotoneum.

In English marmalade first meant ‘quince preserve’, as is found in the 1530s, before Mary, Queen of Scots, was born. Oranges are not the only fruit, even today, but the first reference I know to non-quince marmalade in English is from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy: ‘marmalet of plummes’. The famous Mrs Glasse writes (1767) of ‘marmalade of cherries’; the just as famous Eliza Acton (1845) of marmalade made from apples. The less famous Mrs Raffald (author of The Experienced English Housekeeper, 1769) counsels taking ‘the clearest Seville oranges you can get’. I was sorry to learn that, after her death, Mrs Raffald’s husband lived extravagantly until he died, aged 89.