April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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Grapefruits and Tuna Fish

Welcome to “How Should I Know?”—the Q&A column that the whole family can enjoy without wondering why it’s called that.

Dear Mordechai,

How did the grapefruit get its name? To me, it looks more like an orange, and has no resemblance whatsoever to a grape.


Dear C.,

It should look like an orange. After all, it’s a cross between an orange and a pomelo, and most people never really go near a pomelo except once when they try it and wonder why the rind is, like, two inches thick.

“Why would they even grow these? We have grapefruits!”

Personally, I think the name was devised early on by the grapefruit marketing department to get more people to try grapefruits. Otherwise, who would try them? It’s definitely an acquired taste. No one likes grapefruit the first time they try it. It’s one of those foods you have to try several times. Plus you need a spoon to eat it properly, and it’s constantly trying to squirt you in the eye as a defense mechanism. It actively does not want to be eaten. And if you attempt to eat it without a spoon, like an orange, it will try to choke you on the way down.

So who was going to try this new fruit? So the grapefruit developers called their marketing department, who said, “Well, the most popular fruit is grapes, so let’s call it that.”

“Well, we can’t actually call it grapes; the grape people will sue us. And a lot of people will be disappointed at kiddush.”

“So we’ll change the word a little bit. It’s not grape; it’s a grape … fruit. If you like grapes, you’ll love grapefruit! Ow, I think it’s eating through my tongue.”

And if you think grapefruit is a weird name, look at its parents: Orange is a color, and pomelo comes from the word pomme, which means apple, and the word melon, which means melon. It’s an apple-melon! Talk about marketing.

From what I can tell, though, grapefruits were first discovered in 1750, and were called grapefruit because whoever discovered it noticed that it grew in clusters that looked like grapes to a colorblind person who didn’t understand the concept that things that are far away look smaller. And clearly, this guy named it before tasting it.

Or not. In fact, in 1814, botanist John Lunan wrote, “There is a variety known by the name of grape-fruit, on account of its resemblance of flavor to the grape.” Which means that:

  1. 1. This guy never had a good grape in his life, nebech, and
  2. 2. He might have been eating his grapefruits without peeling them.

Dear Mordechai,

Why do we say, “tuna fish”? It’s not like there’s a tuna mammal or a tuna bird.


Dear T.,

For the same reason we say, “cheddar cheese.” Or “grapefruit.” There’s no grape vegetable. There’s only one other grape, and it’s already a fruit.

On the other hand, Cheddar is also a town in England. Is tuna a town in England? No, it’s a town in Spain, and it’s actually called Tuña.

There’s a tuna salad. Though I guess that’s just salad with tuna fish. Also, for some reason we call straight mayonnaise “salad.” I don’t know.

It seems, though, that a “tuna” is a fish that swims around, but when we put it in a can, it’s called “tuna fish.” If anything, it should be the opposite. Unless you’re trying to assure people that the stuff in the can is indeed fish, but I’m pretty sure they could figure that out by smell.

I think “tuna” is actually classier than “tuna fish.” If you turn it into a steak, it’s “tuna steak,” not “tuna fish steak.”

Oh, and there is a tuna fruit, by the way. Tuna is another word for a cactus, and the fruit that grows from it is also called a tuna. You usually call that fruit a prickly pear, though, and it tastes nothing like a pear, yet you don’t really think about it. You might also call it a sabra, which as far as I know, means Israeli. Or is that a “Sabra person”? But that was also probably a marketing thing. They grow on a cactus, they’re covered in thorns, and they have hard seeds that you have to muscle past because everyone says you can eat them, although that might be a practical joke. The last thing they need is to be called “tuna fruits” on top of it all.

I kind of feel like half of etymology is about finding new words for things when the most appropriate word already means something else. The other half is correcting people who confuse it with entomology.

Have a question for “How Should I Know?” Ask your entomologist.


Mordechai Schmutter is a freelance writer and a humor columnist for Hamodia and other magazines. He has also published seven books and does stand-up comedy. You can contact him at [email protected].

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