Armenian Apricots

Perhaps the most enjoyable moments in the classroom are those when everyone in the room (teacher included) learns something new. This in turn can set off a chain of new and interesting questions and thoughts. This first blog post is about how learning about the uncertainties around Roman apricots did this for me and some year 7 pupils a few months ago.

It doesn’t seem to take the 11 and 12 year olds I teach each year long to work out that their Latin teacher doesn’t know *every* word of the Latin language. A favourite question of 11 year olds studying Latin for the first time is ‘What is the Latin word for…?’  They ask this question while they’re acclimatising themselves to the finding that much of the English language itself derives from Latin. I don’t tend to fare too badly in the spontaneous vocabulary tests that ensue, but sooner or later a gap in my knowledge tends to emerge and I have to reach for the dictionary (cue, usually, much amusement from squealing 11 year olds).

Last academic year, the moment that provoked this reaction was when I was asked what the Latin word for ‘apricot’ was. I had no idea, I said, and wondered straight away if apricots even featured in the Roman diet. The basic Collins dictionary I consulted first gave a simple answer: the Latin for ‘apricot’ was ‘armeniacum’, it suggested – so, presumably, they did. Better dictionaries later clarified that there is evidence also of ‘malum armeniacum’ (i.e. Armenian apple) and ‘prunum armeniacum’ (Armenian prune). Later that day, I searched around a little further.

The name armeniacum, as you might expect, has a geographical connotation: the Latin language associated apricots with Armenia, a territory on the Roman empire’s eastern boundaries, parts of which were controlled by Rome and Constantinople in the first to fifth centuries AD. The term armeniacum was certainly used in the 1st century AD: Pliny the Elder uses it more than once in his Natural History. I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to assess the evidence, but I encountered various claims that the apricot’s more ancient origins lie further east than Armenia, in (perhaps) India or China. I did, however, come across a fascinating blogpost on the OUP website detailing outlines of the etymological development of ‘armeniacum’ into ‘apricot’. To any readers out there, please do comment with any further interesting info on the topic!

Back to the 11 year olds, to whom I reported some of these findings in their next lesson. I think some of them left the classroom that day having learnt that fruit and veg in the ancient world could be imported from far and wide, from across the empire (and beyond). Some may also, perhaps, have established a connection between apricots and Armenia. More still, probably, will remember the experience of finding a question their teacher couldn’t answer, and the patchwork-like nature of the information that I presented to them by way of response: perhaps that, rather than the detail of my research, provided the best lesson of all.