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The Latin word for plum is damascena, and the capital of Syria is Damascus.

Are these names related? Why is Latin word for plum so close to the name of Syrian capital? Did Damascus have good plums in the old times?

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    Apparently a lot of unrelated things, also including (off the top of my memory) fabrics, a rose variety and a type of steel have names related to Damascus in most modern European languages. Being an important trade center has long-lasting effects.
    – fraxinus
    Oct 15, 2023 at 14:20

2 Answers 2

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Isidore of Seville gives the following explanation in his Etymologiae, an encyclopedia that summarized and organized a wealth of knowledge from hundreds of classical sources:

Coccymela, quam Latini ob colorem prunum vocant, alii a multitudine enixi fructus nixam appellant. Cuius generis Damascena melior, a Damasco oppido, unde prius asportata est, dicta.

That is,

Coccymela, which the Latins call prunum because of its color, others call it nixam from the quantity of the fruit brought forth. Among this genus, Damascena is better, named after the town of Damascus, from where it was first brought.

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  • I think a multitudine enixi fructus is "from the quantity of the fruit brought forth" (enitor IIA).
    – TKR
    Oct 13, 2023 at 18:50
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    Please, feel free to improve my translation from Latin to English.
    – Charo
    Oct 13, 2023 at 18:58
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    What color is prunum? Oct 14, 2023 at 22:16
  • @SnackExchange Two guesses spring to mind: (1) It has been speculated that brunus (of course, a word of Germanic origin) might have already been in use in 7th century Visigothic Spain, and indeed, once Isidore has a discussion of the colors of horses, one of which is "Mannus [...] quem vulgo brunicum vocant" (Etym. XII, i, 55: thelatinlibrary.com/isidore/12.shtml). (2) By Isidore's lax standards, purpureus might be close enough to prunus, I guess.
    – marquinho
    Oct 15, 2023 at 13:57
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Apparently so! Even in English, we still have the word "damson" for a particular type of plum (Prunus insititia), which comes from Damascena.

However, just like in English, it didn't refer to all plums—just a particularly good type that came from Syria. The word for a plum in general was prunum; Damascene plums specifically were pruna Damascena, which eventually got shortened to simply Damascena.

(I'm not sure if Prunus insititia was actually more common in Damascus than anywhere else in the region, but presumably thats where the Romans were importing the plums from, and the name stuck.)

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