37

There is a small apple-tasting fruit called medlar in English. It looks like a cross between an apple and a rosehip.

It has two main curious features: first the fruit must be bletted before it can be eaten. This means picking it before it is fully ripe and waiting until its flesh turns soft, brown and squishy. This may take at least two weeks. Apparently, its taste is

... somewhere between apples, dates, custard, and caramel...

I remember they tasted of custard. But there's more to them than that – sweet like a date, a hint of lemon and a little apricot.
Alys Fowler

Something like very rich applesauce with hints of wine.
Lee Reich

picked medlars bletted medlars

The ripened fruit does not look appetising, it looks as if it's rotted and become mush. The term “to blet” was coined by the British botanist John Lindley in 1835 and was derived from the French poire blette meaning “overripe pear”. This type of aging reminds me of hanging the process by which meat is tenderised by being hung for about two weeks until it is noticeably drier and its colour becomes darker.

And second, its somewhat ‘rude’ Etymology

medlar n. "small fruit-bearing tree," mid-14c. (in reference to the fruit itself), from Old French medler, variant of mesple, from Latin mespila "fruit of the medlar," from Greek mespilion, a foreign word of unknown origin. The Old English name was openærs, literally "open-arse."

Questions

  • What is the difference between blet and rot? How is bletting any different from rotting?
  • I cannot believe that medlar was called only “open arse” in Old English, despite what etymonline suggests. There must have been a more ‘normal’ name, just as “dog's arse” is today British slang for medlar, likewise the bawdily named fruit openærs must have been a jocular and vulgar expression. What was its ‘other’ name in Old English?

images: A Kentish Kitchen and David Lebovitz.com

N.B Just in case you're wondering, the link to “dog's bottom” is absolutely safe for work.

  • 3
    It sounds as if, even when the fruit becomes "brown and mushy", it has not spoiled. So I wouldn't call bletting the same as "rotting". Even if it is, "rot" is intransitive, so a transitive verb was needed to describe the process. (although one could call it "leaving them to rot"). A similar process applies to pears (but the trick is to catch them just before they turn brown and/or mushy; so this process might just be called "ripening".) – Brian Hitchcock May 5 '15 at 7:27
  • @BrianHitchcock that actually makes sense, I hadn't thought of that. Care to post an answer? I don't mind opinions for the second question, there may not be a definite answer. – Mari-Lou A May 5 '15 at 7:31
  • Thanks, but Josh gave a more complete answer. Plus, I can't cut and paste my comment, once the five-minute edit window elapses. – Brian Hitchcock May 5 '15 at 8:27
  • @BrianHitchcock well, promise me not to delete that comment. I think it's a very relevant one, and shows that you cannot say rot + noun, but you can say blet + noun, which probably led to its coinage. – Mari-Lou A May 5 '15 at 8:40
  • 7
    +1 for introducing me not only to a fruit I’d never heard of, but also to a word I’d never heard of (‘blet’). I am now exceedingly curious to try medlar jam. A mixture of apples, dates, custard, and caramel sounds absolutely delicious. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 5 '15 at 9:19
12

The "open-arse" (also: enter "open-ærs") entry's first reference in the NED is: "c. 1000 AElfric Gloss. in Wr.-Wülker 137/36 Mespila1/1a, openaers." This source contains no context as this is a lexicon geared at scholars (see document intro.). A note showcases the reaction of Wr.-Wülker to the word, much later, in 1884:

It is rather singular that we should find this not very delicate name for the medlar at so early a period. It is found in the MSS.[manuscripts] of the fifteenth century and is a word sufficiently familiar to the readers of the popular literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

[ Archbishop Alfric's Vocabulary of the tenth century, 137/36, note 5 ]


The NED (1888) mentions for "arse, sb.", "Obs. in polite use.". This should mean it was not always impolite. The first meaning listed refers to this being about an animal (also, ex. of the figurative meaning: "In Cheshire the stalk-end of a potato [is called] the 'arse-end of a 'tater'".) And the entry also refers to AElfric 44/2 where indeed you have Nates (Latin for buttocks), to "ears-lyre"(OE); but there is no note from the author this time over (maybe because it's not spelled "arse"? yet open-ears to mean open-arse might have been). Ass in its slang version as a dialectal variation of arse is recent (1860, popular 1930s). Considering this, a reaction seems unwarranted imho: it's about something descriptive as in the context of farming/hunting; I cannot find any alternative to Mespila or open-ærs/arse/ears in the material presented.


Blet comes from the French blettir (from blet adj., which is from an older form of blesser, but related to bruising as opposed to wounding: "Mil. XIes. blecier « meurtrir (des olives, des fruits, pour les faire mûrir) » (Raschi, Gloses dans Levy Trésor)" - as in making ripe olives, fruits by this action of bruising.) Something we casually do with our hands when some fruit is not ripe enough. Or we just wait for it to happen, as in this case systematically with some prior peeling. This answer presents the "special alteration" coined by M. Lindley for which this "blet" now stands for in context.2 Rot has a different etymology with for instance a German cognate rößen "to steep flax" ("letting raw flax steep under water for several days to break down the lignine in the stems[...]"). It may have no impact on contemporary use, but the first entry in the NED for the verb to rot relates to "animal substances" in the context of natural decomposition. In comparison blet is mostly a special form of decay for fruits.


1. More generally, the category to which the medlar belongs is interesting because other members enjoy in some cases a very rich naming tradition; such is the case with the amalanchier (also): shadbush, shadwood or shadblow, serviceberry or sarvisberry, or just sarvis, wild pear, juneberry, saskatoon, sugarplum or wild-plum, and chuckley pear. The fruits can be 50% smaller, and sometimes more of the berry type but they're related.

1a. See Plinius Natural History (AD 77–79) with translation. The TLFi etymology entry of the French word for the fruit (nèfle) refers to Plinius possibly meaning "white thorn" from the Greek "μεσπι ́ λη". This brings meaning to the medlar wikipedia entry's reference: "When the genus Mespilus is included in the genus Crataegus, the correct name for this species is Crataegus germanica Kuntze." The Crataegus is basically hawthorn/whitethorn etc. which are all, like the medlar, part of the rose family; the hawthorn is graft compatible with the medlar. In that context the haw refers to the fruit; often compared with the medlar.

2. The reference to the "special alteration" is from the same work; see NED entry, which also has: "The decomposition... of the pericarp[the "flesh", see this] begins with fermentation, and, after having passed through the intermediate stage of bletting[...], ends in the total obliteration of the cellular structure." (1864, Reader, 21 May 663). See also following entry with blet sb. where there is indication that there are no external changes appearing with sleepiness i.e. blet, as opposed to spots etc.

  • 1
    I read this from the introduction of Anglo-Saxon and Old English vocabularies which, I think, adds support that the Latin term, Mespila was also used in OE “in the earlier periods of Christianity among Anglo-saxons, the study of the Latin language was pursued with extraordinary zeal and proportionate success, and our island was celebrated for its learned men; but as time passed on, various circumstances combined to produce a general neglect of learning, so that King Alfred complained (9th century) that very few could translate from Latin into their mother tongue.” – Mari-Lou A May 5 '15 at 8:59
  • 2
    @Mari-LouA Yes, MSS is a standard abbreviation for ‘manuscripts’ (it’s always annoyed me that it’s uppercase, but there you go…). I am guessing John Lindley coined both the noun and the verb simultaneously; or rather, he probably coined the noun, and then derived the verb through zero-derivation, which (as you know) is highly productive in English. So ‘to blet X’ means ‘to cause blet to apply to X’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 5 '15 at 9:18
  • @JanusBahsJacquet thank you for clearing the MMS mystery, I did a quick search but found nothing that fitted. – Mari-Lou A May 5 '15 at 9:27
  • Definitely blet can be used as a verb: google.it/… and here: google.co.uk/… – Mari-Lou A May 5 '15 at 10:32
  • 3
    As an aside on Rot: In German (rößen) and Dutch (roten) the term refers to letting raw flax steep under water for several days to break down the lignine in the stems to the point that the flax fibers can be easily separated from the more woody parts of the stems. The water treatment accelerates the decomposure of the material. To rot as a verb in both Dutch and German originally specifically relates to decomposure by exposure to the elements (water and/or air). In modern usage it is used to refer to any kind of decomposure. – Tonny May 5 '15 at 19:39
10
+350

I cannot believe that medlar was called only “open arse” in Old English, despite what etymonline suggests. There must have been a more ‘normal’ name, just as “dog's arse” is today British slang for medlar, likewise the bawdily named fruit openærs must have been a jocular and vulgar expression. What was its ‘other’ name in Old English?

You surely refer to Old English, since you give the wiki link; but The Oxford Dictionary says that the word medlar appeared in England with Middle English, the word, of course, might have been in circulation before then. If that happened the form might have been the original French medler from which it derived.

The wiki article medlar Mespilus germanica shows that both terms—open-aerse and medlar—were present at the same time, the first being the 'vulgar' form of the second:

a quote from Chaucer has the vulgar expression, and one from Shakespeare has both:

  • In Timon of Athens, Apemantus forces an apple upon Timon: There's a medlar for thee; eat it", perhaps including a pun on "meddler", one who meddles in affairs, as well as on rottenness. (IV.iii.300-305).
  • In Measure for Measure, Lucio excuses his denial of past fornication because "they would else have married me to the rotten medlar." (IV.iii.171).

  • In As You Like It, Rosalind makes a complicated pun involving grafting her interlocuter with the trees around her which bear love letters and with a medlar "I'll graff it with you, and then I shall graff it with a medlar.." (III.ii.116-119).

  • The most famous reference to medlars, often bowdlerized until modern editions accepted it, appears in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, when Mercutio laughs at Romeo's unrequited love for his mistress Rosaline (II, 1, 34-38):

    Now will he sit under a *medlar* tree,
    And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
    As maids call *medlars,* when they laugh alone.
    O Romeo, that she were, O that she were
    An *open-arse* and thou a pop'rin pear!
    

The Oxford Dictionary labels the vulgar form : ‘now dialectal

In conclusion: if, as it is most likely, the French common name was not used before the Norman conquest the form open-aerse was the only name for the fruit for a rather short time. You must also consider that the concept of 'vulgar or 'bawdily named' itself was quite different from ours. The word 'arse', most likely, was quite normal at the time, the same as now, in some languages, it's currently used figuratively in a quite acceptable and accepted way. In Italian, for example, you call the bottom of a bottle : ‘culo di bottiglia’, without any shame.

As to bletting: it is a process of ripening that continues off the plant, rot begins when bletting is concluded

  • @Mari-LouA. "rather short" (= shorter than 700) corrects the slip in your title. OE 700 is from 450 A.D. You confirmed my guess, (or deduction from usage in the quotes) quoting Crystal: when 'butt[ock]' ousted 'arse' and made it vulgar, a couple of centuries (max 3) later, 'openarse' was ousted, too. – user118519 May 21 '15 at 10:16
6

1) As for the difference between blet and rot:

Blet is a noun that is used to refer specifically to fruits and plants

  • (Plant Pathology) a state of softness or decay in certain fruits, such as the medlar, brought about by overripening [C19: from French blettir to become overripe] (Collins Dict.)

According to Wikipedia blet is also a verb:

  • The English verb to blet was coined by John Lindley, in his Introduction to Botany (1835). He derived it from the French poire blette meaning 'overripe pear'. "After the period of ripeness," he wrote, "most fleshy fruits undergo a new kind of alteration; their flesh either rots or blets."

Rot (verb and noun) is a more general term used to refer to something that has

  • undergone decomposition, especially organic decomposition; decayed. It is also used figuratively.

If used referring to fruits and plants it indicates:

  • Any of several plant diseases characterized by the breakdown of tissue and caused by various bacteria, fungi, or oomycetes. (AHD)

2) Regarding the possibility that the medlar had a different alternative name in Old English:

  • according to the following source Top 100 Exotic Plants it appears that open-arse was the common name in Old English . This singular name resisted for centuries also after the introduction of the French name in the 14th century. In Medieval Europe medlars were generally called openers with clear reference to the English original name.

Medlar the ambiguity of a term in Shakespeare's times:

medlar; rotten medlar; medlar tree. In Shakespeare, ‘medlar’ means either pudend or podex or the pudend-podex area (the lower posteriors and the crutch). ‘Now will he sit under a medlar-tree, And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit. As maids call medlars when they laugh alone’ (and see continuation at poperin pear): R. & J., II i 24-36. – ‘They would else have married me to the rotten medlar’, says Lucio of a ‘wench’ that he ‘got with child’, where rotten medlar apparently = a professed whore… In Timon, IV iii 306-312, the word – as Professor Oswald Doughty has noticed – ‘seems curiously ambiguous, and suggestive of… homosexual, but it might perhaps as well, or better, mean a woman’; but then, all Shakespeare’s mature work is characterized by a deliberate ambiguity and a deliberate ambivalence.

  • 1
    Try this link :) books.google.it/… (click on the link, copy&paste its URL into your answer). – Mari-Lou A May 5 '15 at 7:50
  • It’s a bit odd that the noun is the only one attested in many dictionaries. The OED says this about the noun: “In Webster (where the only authority cited is Lindley's use of the verb). But this would not give ‘A decayed spot on fruits,’ as erroneously stated, but, That form of decay which is commonly called ‘sleepiness’ (in which there are no external spots to indicate the change)”. The verb, on the other hand, has a definition and a few citations (including of bletting used as a noun). It seems an earlier word for ‘bletted’ was sleepy, based on the OED’s comments. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 5 '15 at 9:41
  • From Google Books "fruit"and"to blet" – Mari-Lou A May 5 '15 at 9:56
  • @Mari-LouA - not really a good answer... – user66974 Nov 10 '15 at 16:06
  • Whose? Yours or Pisces? I like them both. – Mari-Lou A Nov 10 '15 at 16:12
3
+50

This is not meant to be an answer. I just became so immersed in the topic, I wanted to learn more about the Anglo-Saxon name openærs, and its demise.

Old English ‘openærs’

Arse wasn't an impolite word when it first arrived in English. It simply meant an animal's rump, and we see it recorded in writing, from around the year 1000, in all kinds of straight-faced settings, such as glossaries, poems and scholarly works.
The Story of English in 100 words By David Crystal

As Amphiteóth correctly pointed out, the term arse ‘was not always impolite’, so a fruit called openærs was quite appropriate ‘in the context of farming/hunting’.

The French ‘medler’

Old English is dated between mid-5th century and late 11th century, the language (like any modern-day language) was not a static inflexible one. Instead it evolved, and went through a series of changes until its Anglo-Saxon identity was no longer recognizable, this transformation led experts to name its successor Middle English.

The Norman conquest in 1066 was responsible for many of the significant changes that English endured in the following 300 years. French and Latin replaced the Island's native tongue and became ‘de facto’ the official languages of authority, faith, science, law and the arts. English found itself being the third language in its own home.

It's been estimated as many as ten thousand French words were imposed on Old English. Although they did not all come at once, the relentless ‘onslaught’ of foreign words lasted until the 14th century, that is until Middle English began reappropriating its language.

Thus Norman came into use as a language of polite discourse and literature, and this fundamentally altered the role of Old English in education and administration

Because language is first of all spoken, and only recorded later, the OED's first reference of ears-lyre (arse-muscle) around the year 1000, does not mean the English weren't using the terms ers and ærs earlier. As Josh61's citation appears to confirm

This singular name [openærs] resisted for centuries also after the introduction of the French name in the 14th century.

The same can also be said for the French term medler as @pisces mentioned: The Oxford Dictionary says that the word medlar appeared in England with Middle English, the word, of course, might have been in circulation before then.

Therefore it seems reasonable to assume that Englishmen and women did call the rude-looking fruit, openærs, for centuries and continued doing so after the Normans had invaded and renamed words that dealt with food, eating, and cooking. For example:

in ‘salmon’ (from saumoun), in ‘mackerel (from mackerel) ‘oyster’ (from oistress), sole from sole; or in meat, ‘pork’ from (porc), ‘sausages’ (from saussiches), ‘bacon’ (from bacon); or in ‘fruit’ (from fruit), ‘oranges’ (orenges), and ‘lemons’ (limons), and even ‘grapes’ (grappes) … Fry from frire, ‘vinegar’ (from vyn egre), ‘herb’ (from herbe), ‘olive’ (olive), ‘mustard’ (from moustard) and, key to it all, ‘appetite’ from (apetit).

The French arrived, took the Anglo-Saxon name ‘openærs’; chewed it, ate it, and spat it out, replacing it with their French names: medler, and mespile. By the 17th century the words ars and arse were associated with people's bottoms, so polite euphemisms such as ‘bum’; ‘buttocks’; ‘backside’; ‘behind’ and ‘posterior’ were spawned. All of which eventually led the archaic term openærs to becoming obsolete.


Bletting vs. Rotting

The clearest and least ambiguous description of bletting I found is at an online shop selling a wide selection of gourmet foods.

So what exactly is bletting? Ripe fruits are harvested in late October and spread on straw or sawdust somewhere cool for several weeks. Once they are in the first stages of decay, they are ready: the sugar content of the fruit has increased and the acids and tannins that make it sour have reduced. Ideally, the medlars are pulled from the tree just after the first hard frost of the winter. This kicks off the bletting process.


Sources:

Merriam-Webster
Origin of open-arse (dialectal, British)

Middle English openers, from Old English openærs, from open + ærs, ears ass; from the large open disk between the lobes of the calyx

The Historical Thesaurus of English

openærs OE
medlar c1366–1858
mespile 1398–1545
medle a1400–1573
azarole 1658–

Thesaurus of Old English

Medlar : openærs (g)
Medlar : æ_pening (o)
A medlar tree : mispeler (q)

An entity that opens : openere (o)
Exposure, revealing, revelation : opennes

Anus : ears
Anus : earsgang
Anus : earsþerl (og)

The home page explains what the ‘flags’ mean

o– indicating that a word form is very infrequent
p– indicating words that seem to occur only in poetry
g– indicating words that usually appear in glossed texts or glossaries
q– indicates a doubtful form but is not searchable.

Wikipedia, Middle English; The Adventures of English By Melvyn Bragg (2003)

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