Dual Language Schools: Biliteracy Word of the WeekThe Many Origins of Watermelon

08/2019
Author Photo: Velázquez Press

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Watermelon. The perfect fruit for the hottest summer days. The water-dense, bright red, and refreshing flesh of the watermelon reminds us of summer picnics, family potlucks, and delicious cocktails. The watermelon that we know and love today did not look the same, nor did it taste the same, thousands of years ago. Scientists say that the watermelon’s ancestors were smaller, paler, and bitter! The watermelon originated in Africa. However, many dispute whether the fruit came from West, North, or Southern Africa. Regardless of the region, Ancient Egypt wins for having documented history of watermelon cultivation: excavated watermelon seeds and paintings dating back more than four thousand years. Thanks to the ever-flowing Nile, watermelons, along with other fruits and vegetables, have had a long history in the diet of the Egyptians. The Egyptians thought the watermelon important for its refreshing qualities that watermelon seeds have been discovered in many ancient tombs, including King Tutankhamun’s.

The plump, juicy, refreshing flesh of the watermelon was the reason for its name: a melon full of water, even if that “water” was red and sweet. Watermelons were introduced to Europe when the Arabs conquered southern Spain in the eighth century. In the Middle East, watermelons were known and cultivated since Antiquity. Watermelons were even part of the tithes given to the priests at the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The Hebrew Bible references it as being a fruit that was eaten in Egypt. The Hebrew word for watermelon is אבטיח (avatiaḥ), which is a cognate with the Arabic بطيخة (biṭṭīkha), which is related with words meaning ‘big,’ ‘bulky,’ and ‘corpulent.’ However, the Arabic speakers of Al-Andalus, Islamic Spain, did not call it biṭṭīkha. The Islamic world in the Middle Ages reached from modern-day Spain to India. There is a region in modern-day Pakistan called Sindh. This area apparently was known for its watermelons, the Sindhi watermelon, which in Arabic would be biṭṭīkha sindiya (بطيخة سندية). In Al-Andalus, watermelons would be known as sandiya, which became the origin of the Spanish word for the watermelon, sandía.

Going further east, During the Chinese New Year, many revelers in China and Vietnam enjoy many foods with family and friends. A favorite snack to munch on during the Chines New Year is watermelon seeds, which symbolize fertility. Watermelons have been a staple in China since the Middle Ages. The Chinese word for watermelon is 西瓜 (xīguā), or “western melon.” In this case, “western” does not mean from the West, but from the west of China. Watermelons traveled to China on the Silk Road from Persia, where they are known as هندوانه (hendevāne), meaning ‘of/from India’.

This summer, like many other hot days, take time and enjoy some time off at a picnic and enjoy watermelon slices, or to the beach, where you can sip on agua de sandía, a refreshing and cold Mexican watermelon drink. There are even recipes for grilled watermelon, if you can believe that! The watermelon’s birthplace was somewhere in Africa. Its first appearance was in Ancient Egypt and spread throughout the Near East, the Mediterranean, Europe, China, and then the Americas. Linguistically, however, it seems that India is the origin of watermelon for Spanish and Persian. Regardless of the origins, watermelon is a delicious treat we can all enjoy.

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