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shameless pleading


Pick a peck of pickled … somethings.

Dear Word Detective:  I recently moved to Ohio, and I was in the supermarket here last week, buying some bell peppers to make spaghetti sauce.  The cashier couldn’t find the proper code to ring them up, and called out to another cashier, “What’s the code for mangoes?”  I explained that they were actually peppers and she said that she knew that, but that everybody she knew called them “mangoes,” although she didn’t know why.  I asked her what they called real mangoes (which the store also sells), and she looked at me suspiciously and said, “Mangoes.”  I gave up at this point because I began to suspect that I was either on Candid Camera or about to be detained by Homeland Security if I persisted in my inquiry.  So what’s going on with “mangoes”? — Carol C.

Well, Citizen C., I have reviewed the SnoopCam footage from your market visit, and I must say that you did indeed seem to be violating Section b17408A, Casting Aspersions on the Veracity of a Vegetable Vendor.  I must warn you that we take our mangoes seriously here in Ohio, even if we’re not, apparently, quite certain what they are.

In defense of Ohio, however, I must note that it’s not just us.  Much of the US Midwest  refers to sweet bell peppers, especially green peppers, as “mangoes.”  Fortunately, this little bit of weirdness has not escaped the attention of linguists, and so, thanks to the American Dialect Society (ADS), we have an actual scientific explanation of the mango-pepper duality (can we call it the Mango Tango?).  According to linguist David Bergdahl, in his article (“Mango: The Pepper Puzzlement”) published in the ADS journal American Speech in 1996, there is a logical reason for all of this.

The “mango,” the real one, is a tropical fruit indigenous to Southeast Asia and India, now grown all around the world, and known for its sweetness and unique flavor.  The name “mango” comes from the Tamil word “mankay,” and “mango” first appeared in English in the late 16th century.

The first mangoes imported into the American colonies were from the East Indies, and, since this was long before either high-speed transport or refrigeration, they arrived not as fresh fruit, but in pickled form.  This fact turns out to be the key to the mango-pepper mystery.  At some point, early on, there was a popular misunderstanding of the word “mango” in America, and people began to use “mango” as a general synonym for “pickled dish,” no matter what the dish  was made from.  Thus, in 1699, we find references in a cookbook to “a mango of cucumbers” and “mango of walnuts.”  Pretty soon almost anything that could be pickled was called a “mango.”   Apples, peaches, apricots, plums, even bunches of grapes, once pickled, became “mangoes,” usually in the form “mango of peach,” etc.  “Mango” even became a verb in the early 18th century meaning “to pickle.”

One of the most popular “mangoes” was created by stuffing a bell pepper with spiced cabbage and pickling the whole shebang.  Apparently, this concoction was so popular for so long that the green pepper itself, even unpickled, became known as a “mango,” and this is the usage that persists in the American Midwest today.

67 comments to Mango

  • rb

    I grew up in Cincinnati and we used the term mango when referring to a mango. I went to school in the Forest Hills School District in suburban Cincinnati in the 60’s and 70’s and the term “stuffed mangoes” was used on the school menu. That’s what my mom called them and also our neighbors. Now, later in life, we’ve moved away to sophisticated South Carolina and have learned the correct term for the vegetable….green peppers. Of course in S.C. we have also learned that the correct term for a shopping cart is a “buggy”, a garden hose is a “hose pipe”, a loaf of bread is “loaf bread” and ground beef is “hamburger meat”.

  • L.R.

    I grew up in Colorado and we always called bell peppers mangos. The local grocery store produce department labeled them as Mangoes. I was 17 before I learned there was a fruit also called mangoes.

  • Snafu

    I’m 75 yrs old. Big green peppers were always Mango’s to me. This is from Illinois.

  • I grew up in Indianapolis. Everyone I knew called green peppers mangoes. Like the other’s said, we never had heard of a fruit mango. One person mentioned banana peppers – those were the only hot peppers folks grew. We didn’t have the hot peppers that are known in the west. As far as “pasta” you could have spaghetti, or macaroni. No variety – just one type of each! Young people today was be very surprised at the lack of variety that was available “in the old days”!!!! Sunday dinner has practically disappeared. That was the special meal of the week! Usually a roast or fried chicken or a big ham. Practically every meal had mashed potatoes and gravy! Yummy!

  • Makes perfect sense…and also explains the rationale for racism…

  • j r

    I grew up an hour north of Cincinnati and both my parents grew up in the Cincinnati area and I never heard of this before. I still live in the midwest and I’ve never come across this. Interesting…

  • tacoTuesday

    Thanks to all who weighed in about their details from “The Midwest”. I’m a 37-year old from Iowa and have never heard of this before, having lived in IA and Northern Indiana until 1999, but I’m completely fascinated now.

  • Pat

    I grew up in Canton, Ohio and have always called green peppers mangoes. My Mother was born in Pennsylvania and she and her whole family also knew them as mangoes. When we moved to California, the first time she went shopping she asked for mangoes and was shown a fruit. We confused quite a few people out here. Now I teach classes at a community college and still refer to green peppers as mangoes. All of the ladies and men who have taken my classes now know what I’m talking about when I say mangoes. Just this last Thursday while buying some mangoes from a lady at our Farmer’s Market I met a lady from Cincinnati who was thrilled to hear me ask for mangoes. I told her I have an Amish cookbook that lists Stuffed Mangoes. I am taking her a copy of the recipe this week, so she can show proof to her doubting friends.
    I was very happy to find your site.
    Thank you,

  • Ron

    I grew up in Southern Indiana and green bell peppers were always called mangoes by my parents and my relatives. I didn’t see a real fruit mango until I took my folks along with me on a Hawaiian cruise in the 1995. I grew to love the tasty fruit very much, but I still catch myself calling a pepper a mango once in awhile.

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