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By Jason Offutt
There was something wrong with the package of dried fruit I plucked off the grocery store shelf. It looked normal enough; a yellow bag with purple writing that read, “Dried Plums.”
But I’d never heard of dried plums.
Then it hit me. I knew what was in this bag. In a simpler, less word-nervous time, people called these gigantic raisins “prunes.” When did good, old-fashioned prunes turn from something once promoted as a laxative into a word only uttered in hushed tones around shady health food circles?
Apparently 14 years ago. Where was I? I thought I kept relatively up-to-date on the snackable fruit industry.
In 2000, the California Prune Board began the Great Prune Cleansing (not to be confused with the effects of eating the prune itself) in an attempt to remove the word from the English language because:
1) to Americans, the word “prune” meant laxative,
2) although plumbs taste awesome, prunes taste exactly like something that would make you do what they make you do.
The now-California Dried Plum Board even got the go-ahead for this subterfuge from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since then prune dried plum sales have increased, 5.4 percent in the past year alone.
Good God, man. If the government tricked us into eating more prunes just by changing the name, what other foods are we eating that go by carefully planned pseudonyms?
• Orange roughy. Although an orange roughy sounds like something naughty, it’s actually a fish. A delicious fish. An ugly orange delicious fish. But no matter how delicious it is, an orange roughy looks like a goldfish version of the hideously scarred Batman villain Two-Face. Which is probably how it got its real name, the slimehead.
Here’s how that would look on a menu: “Lemon-lime Herb Slimehead grilled to perfection, served with choice of mashed potatoes, French fries, or cole slaw, and an empty bucket on the floor. Just remember to lean to the left.”
A Marks & Spencer spokesman told the U.K. Daily Mail the new name is, “a good way to encourage people to try different types of fish.”
• Kiwi. First planted in New Zealand in 1906, the Chinese fruit yáng táo (sunny peach) quickly became popular but was unpronounceable enough to be renamed the Chinese Gooseberry. An actually gooseberry, of course, is as appealing as a spoonful of alum, so by 1959 New Zealand’s leading wholesale distributor Turners and Growers renamed the Chinese Gooseberry “kiwifruit.”
Given the fact that the small hairy fruit looks something like New Zealand’s national bird the kiwi, this made sense. Enough so most people consider the fruit native to New Zealand. Ha, joke’s on us.
• Canola. There are great fields across rural southern England’s rolling hills covered with bright yellow seas of flowers attached to leafy, bright green plants. The beauty of the colors is staggering. It really is. However, that plant is called “rapeseed.”
Apparently North Americans are more conscious of what kind of questions our children will ask when they start reading than are our British cousins, so we now call rapeseed “canola.”
Some name changes are for the best.
Jason Offutt’s latest book, “Across a Corn-Swept Land: An epic beer run through the Upper Midwest,” is available at amazon.com.