From Iceland — Ask An Expert: Why Do We Call Potatoes That?

Ask An Expert: Why Do We Call Potatoes That?

Published October 7, 2022

Ask An Expert: Why Do We Call Potatoes That?
Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Art Bicnick

If you have any passing familiarity with Icelandic, you likely know that the word for “potato” is “kartafla.” Given how ubiquitous this vegetable is in Iceland, chances are it’s a word you’ve encountered a lot. However, we recently discovered that there’s another word for it, “jarðepli,” which literally translates to “earth apple,” which is also what they call potatoes in French and Dutch. So how come you see the former word but almost never the latter? Naturally, we asked Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, professor emeritus of Icelandic at the University of Iceland, for the real scoop:

“Icelandic has two words for ‘potato’—-jarðepli, which is a compound made of domestic material, jarð– ‘earth’ and –epli ‘apple,’ although it is presumably based on a foreign model (perhaps the Dutch aardappel)—and kartafla, which is a loanword adapted from the Danish kartoffel. The first records of both words stem from the mid-18th century, when Icelanders started growing potatoes. Up to around 1880, jarðepli seems to have been the more common of the two, but since the beginning of the 20th century, kartafla has been the main word and jarðepli has been gradually disappearing from use. It is impossible to say why kartafla took over. Maybe jarðepli was considered misleading, making false connections to epli, but it can also be pointed out that a number of other neologisms for vegetables and fruits have not been a big success, such as bjúgaldin (literally ‘bow-fruit’) for banana, the commonly used word being banani, and glóaldin (literally ‘glow-fruit’) for orange, the commonly used word being appelsína-—and many more.”

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