I was listening to an episode of The History of English Podcast, and I was surprised to hear "persimmon" included in a list of words originally from the Native American Algonquin language. I really enjoy eating the fruit persimmon, which goes by the name אֲפַרְסְמוֹן - afarsemon in Hebrew. Those two words are obviously connected, and I know that the word afarsemon appears in the Talmud. So how could persimmon be an Algonquin word?
Well, I decided to check my facts. First I confirmed that persimmon is a New World word:
the North American date-plum, a tree common in the U.S. South, 1610s, from Powhatan (Algonquian) pasimenan "fruit dried artificially," from pasimeneu "he dries fruit," containing Proto-Algonquian */-min-/ "fruit, berry."
And I was also right about afarsemon. However, in the Talmud it doesn't refer to a sweet, fleshy, orange fruit. Rather, it was a fragrant plant whose oil produced very valuable perfume. As noted here, the "afarsimon was considered so valuable that at one point it was literally worth its weight in gold."
Many scholars, such as the botanist Yehuda Feliks, identify the afarsemon with the shrub Commiphora opobalsamum. (Others say it was Commiphora gileadensis). It went by many different names (or may have been associated with various similar plants.) Many of them are listed in the Wikipedia entry "Balm of Gilead."
Included in this list is the biblical term בֹּשֶׂם bosem, which appears 29 times in the Bible, or the variant בְּשָׂמִי (my basam) that appears once in Shir HaShirim 5:1 . We actually discussed bosem many years ago, when we noted that it eventually gave the English words "balsam" and "balm" - so it shouldn't be surprising that the term "Balm of Gilead" is related. (The variant basam may have been the one borrowed into Greek.)
balsam tree; balm. [According to Löw a blend of Gk. balsamon (see בָּשָׂם) and Aram. אֲפוּרְסְמָא Syr. אֲפוּרְסֶמָא (= balsam tree, balm), which is a loan word from Armenian aprsam.]
Feliks, in his book Plant World of the Bible (Hebrew), in the entry for bosem, writes that while in Biblical times bosem referred specifically to Commiphora opobalsamum, in Talmudic times bosem took on the general sense of "scent, fragrance" leaving more specific words, like afarsemon, to refer to the expensive balm. (He also mentions the Talmudic terms אפורסמא, בלסמון and אפובלסמון).
So when and how did the confusion between afarsemon and persimmon begin? I couldn't find an exact date or a specific person who started calling the persimmon as afarsemon in Hebrew. But it seems to have happened in the mid-20th century, and the general consensus is the reasonable conclusion that it was due to the similarity between the two words. Feliks notes (in 1968) that in Israel there is no remnant of the original afarsemon orchards that grew in Jericho and Ein Gedi. So although afarsemon had a rich cultural heritage, it was available for public use by that time.
I have a theory that may give an additional reason. While the word "persimmon" is Native American, related species grew elsewhere in the world, particularly in East Asia. In Japanese the word for persimmon is kaki, and that is the adopted word used in many European languages, like French, Spanish, and German. But that word couldn't be adopted in Israel, since in Yiddish, kaki means "poop" (related to farkakte - lousy, literally "full of crap.") It has the same meaning in Modern Hebrew. (I've seen European speakers here refer to an afarsemon as kaki, and believe me, that raises some eyebrows.) So there was no way that would be the word used in Israel. So why not adopt the available, and similar, afarsemon?
But this would not be the only creative Israeli take on the persimmon. According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (entry "persimmon"), Israelis developed a hybrid of the American and Japanese persimmons, which have "no seeds, no core, and even more importantly, no bitter taste even when unripe." Sometimes called "Sharon fruit", it is exported all over the world, and at least for me, is something I look forward during its season - every winter. It might not be worth its weight in gold, but I wouldn't trade it for any perfume.
I just thought of one other reason why modern Hebrew may have been comfortable with adopting afarsemon for persimmon. They already had a fruit that began with a similar sound: afarsek אפרסק - "peach." So for speakers of Hebrew, who never witnessed afarsemon as a perfume, may have easily begun using it for a fruit based on the similarity to afarsek.
** Update to the update:
The great blog Language Hat recently shared this post, and as often happens when that occurs, there are great comments by very knowledgeable people. One of them noted:
The afarsek connection makes sense to me, as I had always (until looking it up a few years ago and finding the Algonquin connection) folk-etymologized afarsemon as a blend of afarsek and rimon “pomegranate”, on the model of afarshezif “nectarine” < afarsek + shezif “plum”.
I completely missed mentioning אֲפַרְשְׁזִיף afarshezif. And certainly that additional fruit name would encourage people to think afarsemon had a similar origin. But in my defense, I did look at a few lists of fruits in Hebrew and afarshezif wasn't there. While I definitely know the word, I guess it skipped my mind. But interestingly, it doesn't appear in either Klein or Even-Shoshan. The latter is more surprising, since it includes plenty of slang and colloquialisms. But as these pages point out, it's a mistake to call it an afarshezif, since nectarines aren't a crossbreed of peaches and plums, but their own fruit. Therefore, they say it's proper to call it נֶקְטָרִינָה nektarina, and I suppose that's why it didn't enter the dictionary (or any of those lists I looked at.)