GHERKINS: A Little Etymology on the Side

C. Bertelsen)
Gherkins (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Gherkins (Cucumis anguria)

Today begins a new series on “Gherkins & Tomatoes.” After delving into the frankly scatological history of  “chocolate” the other day, I realized just how much fun learning about food-word histories can be.

And since “Gherkins & Tomatoes” aims to clarify food history as much as possible, it seems only natural to start with “gherkins.”

We think of “gherkins” as small pickles, like cornichons. However, there’s more to it than that.

At root, a “gherkin” is a variety of cucumber that happens to find itself in a pickle most of the time.

According to Henry Hitchings, in his new tome, The Secret Life of Words, Samuel Pepys first used the word “gherkin” in English in his diary entry for 02-01-1661, “girken.” The French first used the word in 1549, in French, of course, borrowing from the Dutch gurkkijn or agurkkijn. The Dutch grabbed the word from a Slavic bon mot, agurk. Now whether or not THAT word stems from Polish (ogorek) or Russian (ogurec) is anybody linguist’s guess. Naturally it’s Greek to us, because these Slavic speakers aped the Greeks, who used angourion for “watermelon.” And, of course, the Persians thought they stuck a fork in it first with their angārah. But THEY probably lifted it from an Aryan word, a passage out of India, so to speak.

The Gherkin, London
The Gherkin, London

Oh yes, this gherkin has nothing to do at all with THAT gherkin, the one in London. THAT “Gherkin” appeared in the Russell Crowe film, “A Good Year,” based on the winey novel by Peter Mayle. Who wouldn’t love to dream of a rich uncle leaving them a vineyard in France?

As with many food words, “gherkin” has a sly, slangy side to it, best not repeated in polite company, alas.

Gherkin-Yogurt Salad with Pita (Used with permission.)
Gherkin-Yogurt Salad with Pita (Used with permission.)


This recipe demonstrates clearly that national borders mean nothing when it comes to food. People across India, the Caucasus mountains, Greece, and the Middle East all prepare recipes very similar to this one.

3-4 gherkins or 2 medium cucumbers, seeded and diced (peeled if desired)
3 cups Greek Yogurt (or regular plain yogurt, strained with cheesecloth)
Juice of one lemon, about 3-4 T.
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped (optional)
3-4 T. finely chopped fresh dill, fresh cilantro leaves, or mint leaves
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Cut the gherkins into cubes, place in a sieve over a plate, toss with Kosher salt (about 1 T.), and let sit for about 30 minutes. This helps to remove some of the liquid in the gherkins. Rinse the gherkins and pat dry with a clean, lint-free kitchen towel. Place gherkins a stainless steel or glass bowl and add the remaining ingredients. Serve with pita, curries, grilled meats, for the world’s the limit!

© 2008 C. Bertelsen

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