More about Ginkgo

I’ve previously posted my translation of Goethe’s poem Ginkgo Biloba. I’ve recently found more about the history, spelling and pronunciation of the word Ginkgo. I found this in section 8.3 of Sounds Fascinating: Further Investigations on English Phonetics and Phonology (2016), by JC Wells.

Wells notes that the Oxford English Dictionary describes the word as coming from Japanese origin, and derived ultimately from Chinese yinhsing, meaning silver apricot. He says that this word would be written 银 杏 in Chinese characters and yinxing in the official transliteration (pinyin).

Wells provides the following summary, though he acknowledges that some people dispute parts of this account. Apparently, the tree came into Japan from China together with the Chinese name, then pronounced as ginnan. But the same characters can also be pronounced in Japanese as ginkyoo. In 1690, Engelbert Kaempfer was the first Westerner to see this species. He used the latter version (ginkyoo) in his Amoenitates Exoticae (1712). But his y was misread as g and the mis-spelling survived: ginkgo.

Wells makes 2 other comments:

  • the word ginkgo is confusingly similar to the common Japanese word ginkoo, meaning bank.
  • the tree’s full scientific name is Ginkgo biloba. Biloba clearly means ‘two-lobed’, reflecting the shape of the leaves. The first syllable of that word is the Latin prefix bi-. If pronounced in the same way as in other words (such as bifurcation), that prefix would sound like buy. But people claiming that Ginkgo biloba has medical benefits generally pronounce the first syllable of Biloba like the beginning of the word bit.

Goethe’s poem is partly about the intriguing two-lobed shape of the Ginkgo leaf. The Goethe poem and my translation of it are at Ginkgo Biloba – Language Miscellany

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