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.

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