Onions

Appears in

Everybody knows his onions, although some aspects of their biological and culinary nature are probably worth laying out here. For example, the Latin species name includes the genus Allium, the word for garlic, whose reflex in French is ail (pronounced โ€œIโ€), and whose plural can be either the orthographically offputting but more usual aulx (pronounced โ€œOโ€) or the botanical ails (pronounced โ€œIโ€). Cepa, condensed from the more common caepa, just meant onion, or whatever passed for an onion in ancient Italy. It is the source of many modern European words for onion: Spanish cebolla, Italian cipolla, Portuguese cipola, even German Zwiebel. Our โ€œonion, โ€ an obvious descendant of French oignon, is really a close if historically distant relative of classical Latin unio, a single onion. Columella, the agricultural authority (fl. A.D. 50) wrote: โ€œcaepam, quam vocant unionem rustici.โ€ When peasants talk about onions, they say unio. So it would seem that French and English inherited the rustic term, while the rest of Romance Europe held on to the polite word.

Our proper or โ€œbulbโ€ onions come in many colors and sizes, all of them produced at some distant time by cultivation. Records go back five thousand years, but there is a hypothesis that cultivated onions were coaxed out of wild types at some even more remote date in what is now Afghanistan or Iran.
Whatever. As those chainsmoking yuppies who are mystified by terms like โ€œChurchillโ€ and โ€œiceboxโ€ might say. Fortunately, their cult of sentimental or paranoid vegetarianism does not prevent them from trying their mettle against onions. Inevitably, like the rest of us in the varicose population, some of them cry, in reaction to the volatile chemicals released from sulfurous elements in onions by enzymatic action, after the overlapping leaf clusters that form onion bulbs have been traumatized by a knife.

    In this section