A Note on Apricots

On March 15th, 2002, Mr. Lameen Souag of Cambridge University, England, sent me the following email communication:

I just came across a Lingua Franca expression that doesn't seem to be on your site. Thomas Shaw (1738) says in his Travels - through Algeria and Tunisia, to be precise, in his postscript's description of agriculture in the area - that:
"…the common Apricot is very dangerous, occasioneth a variety of Fevers, and Dysenteries, and goeth in the Frank Language by the Name of [Matza Franka], the Killer of Christians"…

Two questions arise from this observation: (1) What is the linguistic explanation of the term; (2) Why was the North African apricot such a risky fruit? I believe that our subsequent discussions by email elucidated both of these issues.

Matza Franca stands in place of mata-franca, from Spanish matar, "to kill", the t in North African speech frequently being affricated. Mr. Souag comments:

It's supposedly a Berber substratum influence; it's rarer in the modern "koine" dialects, but apparently quite common in more conservative pre-Hilali dialects. Farafra in western Egypt also has this shift t > ts, or so I've read…

franka is typical of Lingua Franca in its indifference to gender and number, and refers to Western Christians. But why does this fruit kill "Franks?" The answer may lie in the following item from Journal of the American Medical Society vol. 287 no.12, Mar 27, 2002 p. 1500, quoting an earlier JAMA from the beginning of the twentieth century:

"The artistic poisoning methods are dwelt on most. There is the preparation of arsenic - tasteless, colorless, odorless - that might be smeared on one side of a knife with which a peach was cut, the poisoned half being given to the victim while the murderer could eat the other half with impunity."

Image of the Text It may well be that on occasion North Africans used this dastardly form of murder with fleshy fruits such as peaches and apricots, to the detriment of unfortunate Christian guests, hence the existence of the name in Lingua Franca.

[Illustration courtesy of the American Geographical Library at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. From Shaw, Thomas, (1694-1751) Travels or Observations Relating to Several Parts of Barbary and the Levant (London, 1757) p. 226, call number DT188 s5.]

A more pedestrian explanation is also possible, namely that fruits and vegetables in hot countries are often fertilized with night soil (human waste) and this can lead to E. Coli infections, cholera and other unpleasant consequences. In such places these days government agencies will issue instructions to scrub fruit and vegetables with soap and water before consumption. The local population will often be already immune to such infections, but visitors will suffer.

For more on the subject see the discussion in Conversazioni.

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Alan D. Corré