“Cranberry Relish” may sound like a more fitting title for a food blog than a language blog (or perhaps an advice column by the Pioneer Woman), but there is punny linguistic explanation behind it.
First I have to explain a couple of technical terms: morpheme, and more specifically, cranberry morpheme.
In linguistics, a morpheme is the smallest unit that has meaning. A morpheme can be a whole word, like cat or run, or it can be part of a word, like the -ing in writing or the un- in unclear. The word unhurriedly is made up of four morphemes: un-hurry-ed-ly. Each affix adds meaning to the root morpheme hurry, but we also understand their meanings independent of the word they’re attached to: un- means “not” or “contrary to”; -ed indicates past tense; and -ly means roughly “in this manner” or “like this.”
A cranberry morpheme is a special type of morpheme that looks like it should have an independent meaning, but that meaning has been lost to time. The term is derived from the cran in cranberry. The meanings of morphemes in other berry names are fairly straightforward: a blueberry is a blue berry; a blackberry is a black berry; a straw berry is a berry that grows on the ground (in the straw). The cran in cranberry looks as though it should follow a similar pattern, but what is a cran?
The English word cranberry comes from the German word Kranbeere, literally “crane-berry.” It may be a reference to the shape of the flower, which resembles the head and neck of a crane. The pronunciation difference in English between cran and crane led to the dissociation of cranberries from cranes, and the morpheme cran lost its independent meaning.
The were in werewolf is another fun one. The werewolf myth has existed in western culture for hundreds of years, and in Old English, wer simply meant “man”—a werewolf was a “man-wolf.” The word wer has been lost in English, so the morpheme were is now a cranberry morpheme; it no longer has an independent meaning. Interestingly, though, fantasy writers have reappropriated it to refer to any person who can shapeshift into an animal. Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mystery series (adapted into the TV series True Blood) features weretigers, werepanthers, and werefoxes, as well as werewolves. In this way, the cranberry morpheme were has acquired a new meaning.
One more of my favorites: the cob in cobweb. As a child, I thought that spider webs and cobwebs were two different things—that spider webs were made by spiders, but cobwebs were made of dust. It’s an understandable mistake, since the word cobweb doesn’t seem to have anything to do with spiders. Cob is another cranberry morpheme, its original meaning buried in our language’s long and complicated history. It comes from the Old English word for spider: attercoppe, literally “poison head.” Say “coppeweb” a few times fast and it quickly turns into “cobweb.”
The second half of the title Cranberry Relish is a play on the double meaning of relish: a condiment usually made of chopped ingredients, but also enjoyment of or delight in something. This blog is meant to, among other things, convey my delight in all things linguistic, cranberry morphemes included.
I shopped this title among a few friends before I created the blog. I got consistently negative feedback, but by then I was too attached to it to consider anything else, so it stuck.
Still to come: Nectarine Mustard, Chokecherry Gravy, and Kumquat Tapenade. Stay tuned.