The Linguistic Universe of the Olive

May 19, 2014


It is an exceedingly rare thing for Google to let me down — or, put another way, for my skill in wielding Google to let me down. But yesterday I typed the words, “vintner and producer of olive oil,” and I have ever since wondered what you call a person who makes that ancient elixir from the olive. Living in Catalonia, where olives are such a fact of life, words derived from the fruit’s name abound, as I’m sure is the case in all other Mediterranean languages. (Joan Plowright’s married name, after all, means “Lady Olive Tree” in French.*)

In Catalan, an olive tree can be masculine (oliver) or feminine (olivera), but the olive itself is always feminine (oliva). A true indication of the penetration of olives in daily life is the fact that there are no fewer than three adjectives for things pertaining to olives: olivinc, olivós, and olivaci. (Spell check is struggling mightily against me in this post.) The drab green color sometimes known as khaki in English is verd d’oliva on army uniforms in Catalan. You don’t need two words to designate an olive grove; either olivar, oliverar will do.

But I still haven’t found a word for the man or woman who turns the olivers into olives (the plural of oliva in Catalan looking identical to the English plural), and then into the treasured oli d’oliva. Thanks to one of my favorite dictionaries, I know how to hold out the olive branch to someone (either ram or branca d’oliver). But I’m convinced that one of you will tell me a one-word occupational name. I have always assumed that the cognom of one of the most important Catalans in history, Abbot Oliba, might be a clue, but as a I think about it now, the instability and interchangeability of Bs and Vs in Iberian languages probably just makes his name mean olive.

So come on, readers: do for me what Google didn’t do this time!

* Typing that made me curious enough to check, and (thanks, Google) Lord Olivier was indeed of French ancestry.

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