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A recent question on Skeptics SE, brought up an interesting debate on the origin of this proverb.

Particularly, in the comments to this answer we were wondering whether apple really refers to the specific fruit of Malus domestica or it indicates a generic fruit/vegetable.

The OED and various Google searches seem to indicate that apple was used to generically indicate any round fruit, and that is unsurprising, seen its symbolic meaning.

The discussion came from the fact that the Italian version of the proverb, una mela al giorno leva il medico di torno, also refers to an apple (mela), although in Italian -at least to my knowledge- mela does not generally refer to a round fruit (there is a term, pomo, which has that meaning, but it is not used in the proverb).

Moreover, the first report of this proverb in English seems to date back to the mid 19th century, although some (rather dubious, if you ask me) Wikipedia page refers to a XII century medical conference in Salerno as a possible source.

Anyone can shine some light on the matter? Which version came first? What does apple mean in this case?

Bonus question: is there a reliable source for looking at the meaning/derivation of proverbs?

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1 Answer 1

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I'm not sure about the very origin of the saying and I'm inclined to think it's probably lost for ever.

What I can confirm though are the following points:

  • Yes the Old English word for apple ("æppel") was a generic term for any kind of fruit. Just as the ancestor of deer (deor) meant any kind of wild animal (see German "Das Tier").

  • This is not a phenomenon limited to English but is already true for instance in Greek where μῆλον pronounced "melon" was a generic term for any kind of fruit growing on trees. For instance μηλοπέπων ("melopepon" ripe fruit => melon), μῆλον Αρμενιακόν ("melon armeniakon": Armenian fruit => apricot), μῆλον Κυδώνιον ("melon kudonion": fruit from Cydonia => quince), μῆλον Μηδικόν ("melon medikon": fruit from Media/Assyria => citrus), μῆλον Περσικόν: fruit from Persia => persica => pesca => pêche => peach) and so on.

  • There are even traces of this in Italian:

    • Since mela enters in the name of melo cotogno (the quince) even though it is abbreviated to cotogno. Allowing for a certain amount of confusion this is also the probable origin of the Spanish word melocoton (a kind of peach). The origin of "cotugno" being the city of Cydonia (Κυδωνία) a town on the Northern coast of Crete, believed to have been the origin of this fruit.
    • Another Italian fruit name containing mela is the melanzana (aubergine from melo-badingian - باذنجان "badingian" is the Arabic for the eggplant/aubergine and the etymology of the word aubergine itself).
    • Yet another Italian fruit name is melograno which means pomegranate (from Latin pomum "apple" granatus "seed" or French pomme-grenade from Granada in Spain).
    • As noted in Sklivvz's comment below, the word melone itself is formed from *melo* suffixed with the standard Italian augmentative "-one".

As for the association of the apple with a good health one can also cite:

  • The Spanish saying "Sano como una manzana" (healthy as an apple).

  • The etymology of pomade which started as a French word for topical/ointment made from apple (pomme in French) and fat. See also the Italian pomata.

A few references for proverbs

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You may want to add "Melone", melon to the Italian list. –  Sklivvz Jul 26 '11 at 16:10
    
You're right Alain, I never reflected on the fact that melanzana and melograno had the same root as mela. –  nico Jul 26 '11 at 17:14
    
@Sklivvz, thx for the suggestion. Il melone è stato aggiunto all'elenco. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jul 26 '11 at 17:18

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