The pineapple, the status symbol of Georgian Britain

The pineapple, the status symbol of Georgian Britain
  • The juicy fruit is called 'ananas' in almost every European language except English and Spanish. But why?

Malaga. There are some words which are nearly identical across multiple languages. Perhaps the best known is 'wine', which is cognate with 'vino' (Spanish, Italian), 'wino' (Polish), 'vinho' (Portuguese), 'vin' (Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Romanian, French) and many others. But even more intriguing is the word for 'pineapple', which goes by 'ananas' (or something similar) in almost every European language except English and Spanish. Even in Myanmar, far away from its native South America, this prickly, sweet fruit is called ananas.

The pineapple was 'discovered' by none other than Christopher Columbus on the island of Guadeloupe in 1493, who named it 'piña de Indes' (pine of the Indies) due to its resemblance to a pinecone. While the term piña stuck in Spanish, the Portuguese gathered pineapples from Brazil and named them ananás after the Tupi nanas, meaning "excellent fruit".

Thence the fruit spread across the globe throughout the 16th century. The Spanish took it to Africa and commenced cultivation in various Pacific regions including Hawaii, where it is called paina, while the Portuguese transported it to parts of Asia as well as mainland Europe, explaining the prevalence of the term ananas in those areas.

Presumably, said Dr Lauren O'Hagan, a Visiting Scholar in the Centre for Language and Communication Research at Cardiff University, the fruit from the New World reached Britain via Spain and gained its name through an amalgamation of piña and 'apple'.

"Apple was used at the time in English to refer to any type of foreign fruit or vegetable, so peach was 'Persian apple', potato was 'earth apple', tomato 'love apple', et cetera," explained O'Hagan.

The pineapple seized the imagination of the British public. Believed by some to have been the sensuous fruit that tempted Eve, it was grown locally in specially designed 'pineries' that incurred high costs due to the amount of heat and lighting required. Consequently, a single specimen could fetch prices equivalent to £6,500, turning the pineapple into 'the status symbol of Georgian Britain'.

"Anybody looking to showcase their wealth and class had one," O'Hagan told SUR in English. "They weren't to eat but rather to display as dinnertime ornaments, passed from party to party until they rotted or carried under a person's arm as they walked in the streets.

"Such was their popularity that pineapple theft was rife and a crime that resulted in seven years' transportation to Australia, while pineapple rental shops sprung up around the country and pineapple designs became used in everything from carriages, plinths, gates and garden temples to jelly moulds, teapots, clock cases and bookends."

The fruit's crown was even considered a symbol of the divine right of the monarch, leading Charles II to commission a painting of himself with a 'King Pine', as it was fondly known.

However, this curious craze came to an end in the 19th century when European powers began importing fruits from the colonies by steamship. Suddenly, the sensuous delicacy was cheaper than potatoes and could be purchased by even the lowliest circles of society, peeling away the regal status it had enjoyed for more than 200 years.