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Brazil nut

We return to the South American mainland from the Falkland Islands for the third and last of three chicken-and-egg etymologies. So far, we’ve found out that turkeys take their name from Turkey (but certainly didn’t originate there), and that canaries take their name from the Canary Islands (which were themselves named after dogs). And last on our list is our next destination: two thousand miles north of the Falklands, in Rio de Janeiro on the southeast coast of Brazil.

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The question is: which came first – Brazil, or the Brazil nut?

The earliest reference to the Brazil nut we know about comes from Alexander von Humboldt, who we first met way back in Switzerland. When he wasn’t busy wandering the Jura mountains changing our understanding of geological history, Humboldt was off travelling around Latin America, touring the continent on a grand five-year expedition from 1799 to 1804. His first destination was New Granada, a vast Spanish-owned territory (roughly equivalent to modern-day Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador) covering huge swathes of the South American rainforest. Accompanying him was the French botanist Aimé Bonpland, and there, along the banks of the Orinoco River in Venezuela, the pair discovered an enormous species of tree that produced a large, strongly flavoured fruit.

Bonpland named it Bertholletia excelsa – Bertholletia in honour of his friend, the acclaimed French chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet, and excelsa, meaning ‘glorified’ or ‘exalted’ in Latin, a reference to the tree’s extraordinary size. When the expedition was over and Humboldt returned home to Europe, he published an account of his travels, in which he had this to say about his discovery:

We lodged at San Carlos We found in the village a few juviatrees which furnish the triangular nuts called in Europe the almonds of the Amazon, or Brazil-nuts. We have made it known by the name of Bertholletia excelsa.

Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Years 1799-1804, vol. 2 (1821)

By the early 1800s, then, not only had the Brazil nut itself arrived in Europe, but so too had its name. Except, however, that there’s this:

Some of them are known for producing the Souari or Brazil Nuts of the shops, the kernel of which is one of the most delicious fruits of the nut kind that is known. An oil is extracted from them not inferior to that of the olive.

John Lindley, An Introduction to the Natural System of Botany (1830)

This is the earliest English reference to a Brazil nut we know about (as Humboldt’s Personal Narrative was not translated until 1852). But the fact that John Lindley, an English horticulturist and botanist, equates it with the souari nut causes us a problem. The souari – also known as the pekea, or butter-nut – is the fruit of an entirely different species of tree, and is much flatter, broader, and softer-textured than the Brazil nut. This would seem to suggest that although Humboldt’s account proves the Brazil nut had arrived in Europe by the early 1800s, at that time the name was probably originally a placeholder, referring to any large, edible nut that was imported from Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America. Presumably, as the Brazil nut we know today became the more popular or most numerous species over time, it was to Humboldt’s Bertholletia excelsa that the name Brazil nut came to be exclusively attached.

So in answer to the question of which came first, Brazil or the Brazil nut? The answer is certainly that the nuts were named after the country – it’s just that the name probably originally wasn’t quite as specific as it is today.

That still raises one final question, though: where does the name Brazil itself come from? Well, that is an even more complicated story .

Long before the Brazil nut arrived in the English language, back in the late 1300s the name Brazil was used to refer both to a tough brownish-red timber and a scarlet-coloured pigment, both of which were obtained from a tropical species of tree known as the sappan. The problem is, however, that the sappan is native to southeast Asia, not South America. So what happened there?

As the name of a mahogany-like timber, this fourteenth-century brazil derives from its French equivalent, bresil, which is in turn thought to have come from an ancient Germanic word meaning ‘embers’ or ‘flames’ (a reference, perhaps, to the wood’s rich, red colour). Originally, both the timber and the dye obtained from it indeed came from southeast Asia. But as trade opened up with the New World as well as the Far East – and as similar timbers and dyes were discovered in the tropical forests of South America – brazil came to be use as a catch-all term for all hard red-brown timbers.

Over time, trade with the New World overtook trade with the Far

East, and as the region became increasingly significant, on maps and charts from the mid 1500s onwards the coast of South America began to be listed as ‘terra de brasil’ – literally, ‘land of the red-wood dyes’. Brazil has been Brazil ever since.

But just when you think this etymology is solved, there’s this:

Weste of yreland is an ylonde called the ilande of brasyll which stondeth in 51 degrees. Hit is almost rounde, of longitude it hath 12 leges and of latitude 9. ffrom Yreland to this yle of brasyll is 70 legis.

Clamber through all the jumbled early sixteenth-century English there, and you have a description of an island off the west coast of Ireland called Brasyll. Its author, Roger Barlow, was a companion of the explorer Sebastian Cabot, but he is here quoting data from a Spanish navigator and geographer named Martín Fernández de Enciso. He was born in Seville in 1470 – but the belief that an island named Brazil lay somewhere off the west coast of Ireland is even more ancient than that.

According to Irish folklore, Hy-Breasil was the name of a vast island in the north Atlantic Ocean that remained shrouded in mist except for one day every seven years; even then, on the one day it could be seen, the island was still unreachable. Its name apparently derived from that of an ancient Irish clan, whose name in turn was perhaps taken from an Old Irish word, bres, meaning ‘mighty’ or ‘worthy’.

This legendary island first began to appear on maps and charts as far back as the 1300s, long before the Brazil nut, brazil wood or terra de brasil began to appear in English accounts. The myth has led to suggestions that early explorers of the Americas perhaps presumed that when they landed on the coast of South America they had finally reached this phantom island, and so Brazil – and ultimately the Brazil nut – took its name from ancient Irish folklore. It’s an enticing story, certainly. But unfortunately, it’s considered not to be the case.

When Portuguese explorers first set foot on Brazilian soil around 1500, they called it Terra de Santa Cruz, or ‘Land of the Holy Cross’ -making no reference at all to the curious mythical land west of Ireland. Unfortunately for the explorers, their choice of name did not last long, and within a matter of decades Terra de Santa Cruz had been all but replaced on European maps by terra de brasil.

So where does all that leave us? Well, the name Brazil nut certainly derives from Brazil – but, originally, it didn’t refer only to the actual Brazil nut. As for Brazil, it took its name in turn from a tough, reddish timber and the dye extracted from it – only the tree and the dye in question came originally from southeast Asia. And you thought the journey we’re currently on was complicated

This, again, is just one of a number of etymological theories. If not derived from brese, an ancient word for ‘embers’, this bresil timber might take its name from another French word, briser, meaning ‘to break’ or ‘crumble’ (a reference perhaps to the wood drying out in transit), or verzino, an Italian-origin corruption of an Arabic name for saffron (in reference to the wood and the dye’s rich hue).

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