Monday, March 02, 2009

Call Me “Professor Plum”

For people like me, the grocery store is a treacherous place. I am not a cook, though I frequently find myself buying ingredients for people who do possess the ability to use fire and water to turn these components of food into better food — full-fledged meals, in fact. For example, just this week I was charged with bringing home zucchini. I saw what looked like zucchini, but it was labeled as “Italian squash.” I asked a clerk standing just a few feet away if the store had any zucchini, and he looked at me like I asked if the store had a floor. “Right there,” he said, pointing to the Italian squash. “It’s the same thing?” I asked. He pointed again as if that would answer my question.

These things trouble me.

More recently, I found myself on the old people aisle, where tried fruit and bottled juice stretches as far as the eye can see. I was staring at side-by-side packages advertising dried plums and dried prunes and realized that I’ve never understood the difference between the two. I grew up in house whose yard boasted a plum tree. In stores, however, I saw dried prunes, whose packaging bore images of the fruit in their non-dried variety, looking a hell of a lot like the things that grew on the plum tree. What gives? Do these two things have the same relationship as grapes and raisins? Or is this the work of shrewd marketing on the parts of the world’s plum pushers, eager to distance the plum from associations with irregular old people?


The result of what the internet tells me: I’m still don’t know.

I mean, right off the bat, the Wikipedia page for plums tells me that dried plums are, in fact, prunes and that prunes have recently been rebranded in an effort to declassify them as poo fruit, so you’d think that would have answer my question enough that I’d be done with the subject. But I’m still confused by the fact that the scientific genus for the fruit, Prunus, also includes peaches and cherries. Furthermore, the Wikipedia page for prunes states that the term refers to various plum cultivars, usually sold and consumed in dried form. That word usually means a lot, as far as exactness goes. I’m concluding that while prune can mean a dried plum, it can also mean a non-dried fruit similar to plums.

My dictionary of choice doesn’t help much. While the American Heritage Dictionary entry for plum doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know, the one for prune seems more restricted than what Wikipedia offers. According to AHD, prunes can be “the partially dried fruit of any of several varieties of the common plum, Prunus domestica,” “any kind of plum that can be dried without spoiling,” or, in a slang sense, “an ill-tempered, stupid, or incompetent person.” Nothing about anything you can eat in its non-wrinkly state.

As usual, etymology is no help in determining how these words get used today. Plum came into Old English by way of Germanic and descends from the Vulgar Latin pruna, which means “plum.” (The Latin word ultimately goes back to Greek and then to an Asiatic language, apparently, but the shared history with prune seems more relevant to the topic at hand.) And in case you thought that the verb to prune — as in what one does with shears to a tree — comes from the same roots as the fruit prune — and why wouldn’t you, considering that both prunes have a strong association with fruit trees? — know that you’re wrong. The verb seems to arise from Latin, specifically from a combination of the prefix pro-, meaning “in front,” with the Latin rotundus, meaning “round.”

So while I can’t explain the difference between plums and prunes, I can at least offer this: The disparity between the two goes way back. Plum has been used to connote goodness — “a desirable thing,” as Wiktionary puts it — since 1780 and prune to connote badness since 1895. Doesn’t help those trying to market prunes. It all reminds me of a paper I wrote on Ethan Frome back in college, with Ethan’s wife Zeena being associated with pickles and all things withered and infertile and his would-be mistress Mattie being associated with cherries and all things sweet and sexy. And to tie this all in with the previous post, I once watched a French thriller called With a Friend Like Harry in which an attractive female character was referred to as “Plum” in the subtitles even when the characters were clearly addressing her as “Prune.” She ended up dead, so maybe neither word has a good enough association.


If anyone can straighten me out on prunes and plums, I’d appreciate it, even if it’s just to affirm tha there is, in fact, no consensus on what means what.

5 comments:

  1. spence6:37 AM

    The OED gives us: "1.a. The fruit of the plum tree, a plum. Also: a plum tree, Prunus × domestica. Obs. exc. as in sense 1c."

    Sense 1c being: "c. Any of various varieties of plum grown specifically for drying, with firm flesh, high sugar content, and usually a purple skin."

    And then, of course, there's 1 sub b: "A dried plum, now produced commercially in parts of Europe, California, and elsewhere, and eaten cooked or uncooked. (Now the usual sense.)"

    ReplyDelete
  2. also, thank the OED for these corkers:

    "to be full of prunes: colloq. (chiefly U.S.), to talk nonsense, to make unfounded claims or assertions."

    "prunes-and-prism (also prunes-and-prisms) [a phrase notionally or actually spoken aloud in order to form the lips into an attractive shape (see quots. 1846 and 1856)] designating a prim or affected facial expression or manner of speaking."

    "prune belly: the congenital absence of the muscles of the wall of the abdomen, resulting in a wrinkled appearance of the belly; an abdomen exhibiting this; (more fully prune belly syndrome) a syndrome characterized by this and other malformations, esp. of the urogenital tract, seen chiefly in boys."

    ReplyDelete
  3. Pedro C9:18 AM

    "A prune is any of various plum species, mostly Prunus domesticus or European Plum (commonly referred to as a Sugar Plum). They are usually sold as dried fruit"

    The usually in the second sentence is modifying "dried," not what gets dried. There are specific varieties of plums that were bred to be dried as prunes, and as they have an easier to remove pit, some people prefer them even when fresh. I think they are also a little sweeter when fresh, but I can't remember for certain.

    Not willing to rely on my memory alone, I called one of my old coworkers who buys and sells plants for a living. She confirmed that, yes, prunes are to plums what raisins are to grapes. She also said you can buy a tree that has different branches growing plums, peaches, nectarines, and apricots, but not cherries. They are apparently the red-headed stepchild of the Prunus genus.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I guess "prunes-and-prisms" explains why the queen in Prince Caspian is named Prunaprisma.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you all. This clears up some confusion.

    On the notion of being "full of prunes" meaning "to talk nonsense, to make unfounded claims or assertions," I have to not the strangeness of it basically meaning the same as "full of shit," mostly because being full of prunes would most likely make a person not be full of shit, at least in the immediate future.

    ReplyDelete