Putting Strawberries to Bed for the Winter. Wait “straw”berries?

I was recently in our perennial fruit plot spreading straw over the strawberry beds. I was thinking of the word strawberry as I worked. In German, it is Erdbeere, which means “earth berry.” In Spanish, fresa, which comes from the Latin Fragum and can be compared to French fraise and Italian fragola.

Most food words in English either come from its Germanic roots or imposed, high-class French. For example, many of the ingredients of foods maintain their older names: deer, cow, and sheep. Yet the prepared foods are no longer called things like flesh, as they were, but venison, beef, and mutton, all of which come from French. In 1066, the Normans invaded England and as they supplanted the previous rulers, they brought their French language to court. Thus the food served at high-class tables was referred to by the French names but the the ingredients were still bought from an English-speaking population. Now, this is an oversimplification of a complex sociological change in the history of the English language, but suffice it to say, we should probably be calling strawberries something like earthberries or fraises.

Strawberry beds mulched with straw for the winter.

I had always assumed that strawberries got their name because they are mulched each year with straw, thus in the spring, they appear to sprout from beds of rotting straw. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, which has the etymology of every English word, my assumption was as bad a guess as others who have looked into the origin of this word (check out etymonline.com for a free version of this information). The OED notes:

No corresponding word is found in any other Germanic language. The reason for the name has been variously conjectured. One explanation refers the first element to straw, a particle of straw or chaff, a mote, describing the appearance of the achenes scattered over the surface of the strawberry; another view is that it designates the runners.

The runners “strew” the berry plants across the ground and over time this became “straw.” I suppose those explanations could hold water, but as they have no specific evidence to support them, I’ll keep thinking it is due to the mulch.


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