Before you read any further, answer this question: What do you call the item shown below?
If you said “mango,” you’re most likely from somewhere in the Midwest and are part of a select group of people who know an alternate, exotic name for this commonplace veggie.
What? You’ve never heard a green pepper called a mango before? Pull up a chair and let me try to explain it to you.
Back in colonial times, produce from overseas came pickled, since it was a way that food could be stored in the days before refrigeration. This included mangoes (the orange, sweet kind.) According to The Word Detective, people in England and the colonies confused the name of the fruit and thought it referred to the pickling. Soon, a pickled dish of any variety was called a “mango.” (The Word Detective has a reference to “a mango of walnuts.” Pickled walnuts? Eww. But I digress.)
Because one popular dish was pickled green peppers, it didn’t take too long before green peppers started to be called mangoes. Why the name stuck to them and not walnuts is not explained. Nor did The Word Detective explain why it has stuck in certain parts of the Midwest and not the rest of country.
I have to admit, I was in high school before I realized that a mango could also be a sweet, orange-colored fruit. (Now I call the green things “green peppers,” mostly because I’m addicted to Food Network and that’s what they call them.)
So, what does this have to do with genealogy and family history? A couple of things. First, if you’re following Grandma’s chili recipe and it calls for “mangoes,” ask yourself if she was from the Midwest. If she was, add the green things and not the orange ones.
Second, and probably more important, it’s a reminder that words change meaning over time and can vary in usage from place to place. If you’re reading an old document and it doesn’t quite make sense, ask yourself if you’re reading it as the person wrote it or if you’re reading it with “modern” eyes.
Photo credit: “Green Pepper,” by Sharunas Jurevic. From Flickr, used under Creative Commons license. [Since he titled the photo "Green Pepper," I'm guessing he's not from the Midwest.]