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 “I”), and whose plural can be either the orthographically offputting but more usual aulx (pronounced “O”) or the botanical ails (pronounced “I”). 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 “onion, ” 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: “caepam, quam vocant unionem rustici.” 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.
© 2007 Raymond Sokolov. All rights reserved.