Friday, February 09, 2007


Marzipan is a candy made of ground almonds, and the name of a famous bakery in Jerusalem. Is the name of Semitic origin? Mike Gerver thinks so:

Marzipan comes via Italian from Arabic mauthaban, “seated figure.” Marzipan originally came in fancy little boxes decorated with a picture of a Venetian coin showing Jesus sitting on a throne. The candy took its name from the coin, which was an imitation of Arab coins showing a seated king, called mauthaban. The Arabic word comes from wathaba, “sit,” which is from the same Semitic root as Hebrew ישב, “sit,” or “dwell.” (Note that ש in Hebrew corresponds to two different consonants in Arabic, either s or th, just as it corresponds to either ש or ת in Aramaic. The Aramaic word for “sit” is יתב.) Derivatives of ישב include שביתה, “strike” in modern Hebrew; מושב, a cooperative community with privately owned land, moshav in English; ישוב, “settlement” or “community;” and ישיבה, “place where people sit,” hence yeshiva, or “meeting” in modern Hebrew.

The Online Etymology Dictionary mentions this theory, and adds "Nobody seems to quite accept this, but nobody has a better idea."

This site says that marzipan might derive from a Persian word for governor, marzuban.

The Oxford English Dictionary presents another explanation:

What, then, is the ultimate origin of marzipan (and its cousin marchpane)? The original OED entry comments that 'Its etymology is obscure', and does no more than mention one scholar as having 'ingeniously' suggested a link with 'Arabic mauthaban "a king that sits still"'. Once again, recent scholarship allows the new OED entry to put forward a new derivation: in this case Italian philologists have furnished the basis for a link with - remarkably - the Far East. In Myanmar (Burma) there is a port, near the town of Moulmein, called Martaban, which was famous for the glazed jars which it exported to the West, often containing preserves and sweetmeats. Delicacies are often associated with the containers in which they are traditionally imported (ginger being an obvious example); it seems plausible enough that a name associated with a special container should transfer its association to the thing contained.

Plausibility would not, however, be enough were it not for a curious aspect of the words which correspond to marzipan in some of the other European languages: Italian marzapane, Spanish mazapán, French massepain. In each case the relevant word once also had another meaning, denoting various kinds of container - a casket in 15th-century French and 14th-century Spanish (specifically for confectionery in the case of French), and a container of a certain capacity in Venetian documents in the 13th. And then there is also the fact that Martaban is still known for its pottery: the same batch of recently published OED entries which contains marzipan also contains an entry for Martaban jar (sometimes simply Martaban), this being a kind of large glazed earthenware jar. (The same jars have also arrived in English via Afrikaans: the ships of the Dutch East India Company carried them to South Africa, where even English speakers came to call them Martevaans. By the same exacting criteria that separated marchpane and marzipan, we distinguish Martaban (jar) from Martevaan - the latter has its own entry in the OED, now published for the first time.)
If all the theories revolve around the container, I can't help wondering if perhaps the word somehow connects to the Talmudic word martzuf מרצוף , meaning "bag, sack". Klein provides the following etymology:

Latin marsupium ( = poudi, purse), from Greek marsypion, diminutive of marsypos, marsipos (=bag, purse), which is probably of Oriental origin.

If this somehow was the case, then you could connect marzipan to marsupial...

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