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Flipping through Endymion Wilkinson's Chinese History: A New Manual I came across the following excerpt:

36 Food & Drink
36.7 Ming-Qing
Mangoes: fansuan 番蒜, mangguo 芒果 (Malay mangga?)

番蒜 is a very funny word to call mangoes. 番蒜 is basically made up of two parts:

  • 番 = foreign
  • 蒜 = garlic

Did the ancients really think mangos were garlic like? Or am I missing something?

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Actually the 蒜 is evidence of a substrate influence from an Austroasiatic language (ancestor of Vietnamese xoài or Khmer ស្វាយ [svaay]) in this context. Indeed, this lexeme actually does have its own Chinese character, , with Mandarin pronunciation shē (ㄕㄜ).

It is the Hakka and Min varieties which use this 檨 lexeme:

  • Taiwanese Min Nan: soāiⁿ (Peh-oe-ji), suāinn (Tai-lo), ㄙㄨㆮ˫ (Zhuyin)
  • Fuzhounese Min Dong: suông (Bang-ua-ce)
  • Taiwanese Hakka: sôn (Phak-fa-sü)

In many of these varieties, the pronunications of are very close:

  • Taiwanese Min Nan: soàn (Peh-oe-ji)
  • Fuzhounese Min Dong: sáung (Bang-ua-ce)
  • Taiwanese Hakka: son (Phak-fa-sü)

Hence the substitution of 蒜 was motivated by phonetic similarity (假借) with the lack of "availability" of this 檨 character.

In many of these, the collocation 番檨, preferred in Min Dong and certain varieties of Hakka, may help distinguish it from just 蒜. Or it may just be that mangoes came a bit later to the northeastern Fujian area than the southern area.

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  • That seems like a much more reasonable explanation than, "western garlic."
    – Mou某
    Dec 31 '20 at 16:42
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    For those who are interested, the Nôm character for Vietnamese xoài is 𣒱 (U+234B1, IDS: ⿰木吹).
    – dROOOze
    Dec 31 '20 at 23:40

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