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I've recently come upon the word 鱷梨 (simplified: 鳄梨, pīnyīn: [è lí]), meaning¹ avocado, and am currently looking for its etymology.

Wikitionary mentions it being a calque of alligator pear, which makes sense looking at each 漢字 separately. Then, looking at the entry for "alligator pear", one finds:

Noun alligator pear (plural alligator pears)

  1. (dialectal, now chiefly Caribbean and Southern US, especially Louisiana) An avocado.

Question. How did the term "alligator pear" spread to Chinese in the form of 鱷梨? Are there any historical registries of when it first started appearing in common usage?


¹Incidentally, 牛油果 (pīnyīn: [niú yóu guǒ]) and 酪梨 (pīnyīn: [lào lí] or [luò lí]) seem to be another words for avocado, with 酪梨 apparently being used mainly in Taiwan.

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  • Could you clarify what you're looking for when you ask "how"? How did it become ... in English is off-topic (that is English etymology), How did it spread into Chinese is a history question, and How does it mean alligator pear is also off-topic (as it is also English etymology, and perhaps you mean to ask "why" instead of "how").
    – dROOOze
    Commented Mar 26 at 18:47
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    @dROOOze I've removed the English etymology part, and clarified I'm looking for a detailed account on how it spread to Chinese in the form of 鱷梨, with things like early occurrences in written Chinese documents, or accounts showing how and when the term started to be used.
    – Emily
    Commented Mar 26 at 18:58

3 Answers 3

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The word 鳄梨 is attested from these early 20th century works:

  • an overview of the Dutch East Indies (now principally Indonesia), 《科學的南洋: 荷屬東印度編》, published in Shanghai by the Commercial Press (商务印书馆) in 1931, referring readers to one of the great tomes from the pioneer of modern Chinese botany, 胡先驌 Hu Xiansu.
  • in 1932, a Japanese primer on certain goods (最近高等商品学) contained 鳄梨 in reference to the avocado, with enough explanation to derive it as an unambiguous calque from English.
  • a high school biology textbook, 《高中生物學:生命的探討》, published in Taiwan in 1966, gives 鳄梨 as the sole translation of avocado.

This did compete with 油梨 for a while:

  • 《用苜蓿粉进行油梨 (鳄梨) 根腐病的生物防治》, published in the Mainland agricultural journal 《世界热带农业信息》 in 1966, where 鳄梨 is given as an alternative to 油梨.

After serious attempts at cultivation and commercialisation occurred, we continue to see 鳄梨 dominating:

  • 《鳄梨 (Persea americana Mill.) 花的生物学特性观察》, published in Acta Botanica Sinica [植物学报] in 1978, uses 鳄梨 as its primary term.
  • 《关于樟科润楠属和鳄梨属的分类界线问题》 (published in 2006 in the Acta Phytotaxonomica Sinica, and not to be confused with the incorrect title given to a 1974 paper on another Machilus species, M. chekiangensis)
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  • Thank you so much for such a detailed review of the historical sources mentioning 鳄梨, this is super helpful!
    – Emily
    Commented Apr 2 at 20:47
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Question. How come avocado came to be (dialectally) called an "alligator pear" in English, and how did this term got calque'd into Chinese as 鱷梨?

Per Wikidictionary, the word "Alligator" is likely an alteration of Spanish aguacate, perhaps influenced by the similarity in texture between the skin of the fruit and of an alligator. And its Chiese name 鱷梨 is the direct translation from its English name - Alligator(鱷) Pear(梨).

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/alligator_pear#English

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  • Thank you for the answer! I've clarified the question to emphasize I'm looking for a more detailed account than "it's just a direct translation", which I believe is clear from the individual 漢字. That is, I'm interested in a historical account of when the term first started being used in Chinese, be it in daily usage or written documents, and how the term made its way into widespread, day-to-day, usage.
    – Emily
    Commented Mar 26 at 18:58
  • Good luck. Avocado is an imported fruit that was first introduced in Yunnan Province in 2007. As an import item, it has no local name but to borrow from the others. However, IDK why they borrowed the English name "Alligator Pear" though.
    – r13
    Commented Mar 26 at 20:05
  • Just curious, re 'first introduced in Yunnan Province in 2007'. Does it mean avocado wasn't reasonably available in China up to 2006? or is it just in Yunnan?
    – sundowner
    Commented Mar 27 at 2:51
  • The first encounter could be earlier, but I don't think it was widely available in the market at then.
    – r13
    Commented Mar 27 at 3:31
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It seems the Chinese translated the English corruption of Spanish aguacate: alligato -> alligator pear, 鳄梨

aguacate: originally: Nahuatl (Aztecan) ahuakatl -> Spanish aguacate

By the late 16th century, the fruit was starting to appear in the English language, the first mention being by an English merchant who had travelled in Mexico. He referred to the fruit as alvacata, presumably his attempt to replicate the Spanish aguacate. By the time Irish naturalist Sir Hans Sloane mentioned the plant by name in his catalog of Jamaican flora of 1696, it had become avocado.

The English often have trouble pronouncing Spanish!

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