Seed v Pit; Semilla v Hueso

I love my friends! Here we are, sitting on the beach and Deb suddenly erupts with excitement to discuss why Spanish uses the word hueso (bone) for pit; and at what point is a semilla (seed) different from a hueso.  She issued me a challenge, and I accept.  Love, love, love my friends.

The analysis focuses on two aspects: 1) why two terms, and 2) why ‘hueso’.  (Emphasis added to stress that ‘why’ is the purpose of the exercise.)

Why Two Terms

Super easy — according to botany sources, the seed is what germinates, and the pit (vulgar variation of ‘pith’) is a core.

Seed

I ran across an ooooold dictionary English definition for seed: “that Matter which in all Plants and Fruits is disposed by Nature for the Propagation of the Kind.”  When you look at the etymology of semilla, you see it comes from Latin for semen.  In fact, one Spanish dictionary defines a semilla as: “Embrión de las plantas espermatófitas.”  It’s all about sex, procreation, germination.

Semilla o simiente: Grano contenido en el interior del fruto de una planta y que, puesto en las condiciones adecuadas, germina y da origen a una nueva planta de la misma especie: simiente de tomate; el hueso del durazno encierra la simiente.

-diccionarios.com

So is “el hueso del durazno” the seed?  Nope: it contains the seeds.  We’re beginning to see the difference already between the two.

Pit

From the same very old dictionary, there was no “pit,” but rather “pith”: the inward Part or Marrow of a Tree.  Definitions from other dictionaries used terms like stone, kernel, wood, and pip to define pit(h). In the etymological citations in dictionaries, ‘pit’ is a variant of, what is considered the botanically more correct term, pith: core of the stem of most plants.  Botany dictionaries, of course, are a little more precise:

  • “The hard inner (usually woody) layer of the pericarp of some fruits (as peaches or plums or cherries or olives) that contains the seed.”
  • “Parte dura y leñosa de algunas frutas carnosas, como el melocotón, el níspero, la cereza, la aceituna o el aguacate, en la que está contenida la simiente.”
  • “Envoltura muy dura de celulosa, que contiene las semillas de algunos frutos, como la ciruela, durazno, etc.”

Like some kind of womb for the plant’s litter.  When it only has a single seed, it is still a layer that protects the seed until conditions are right to start growing (like an eggshell?).

So, we know that there is functional and structural difference between a seed and a pit.  There is also a difference in how much of the fruit is composed of each and how that composition is accomplished.  In common speech, we do not always make the distinction clearly when referring to a pit as a seed.  That could be because sometimes we consider a pit a “seed” if it contains only one seed instead of many seeds.  But all the time it is a hard wooden core.  And it does not work the other way around (seed for pit): We do not say, for instance, to spit out the watermelon pits.  That’s just silly.

Why Hueso (bone)

So, let’s start with one definition:

From http://es.wiktionary.org/wiki/hueso:

  1. Material con el que están hechos los esqueletos de la mayoría de los animales vertebrados. Esta compuesto principalmente de carbonato de calcio, fosfato de calcio y colágeno.
  2. Cualquiera de los componentes de un endoesqueleto, hecho de hueso(1).
  3. Envoltura muy dura de celulosa, que contiene las semillas de algunos frutos, como la ciruela, durazno, etc.

What does a skeleton do?  Where is it located?  Hard or flimsy?

Hueso comes from Latin, ossum: bone; (implement| gnawed| dead); kernel (nut); heartwood (tree); stone (fruit)
http://www.latin-dictionary.org/ossum

Other Latin dictionaries indicate that os(sum) [hueso] was used the same way as pith: bone, heartwood, hard or innermost part of trees or fruit, framework.  An example phrase: arborum ossa (the inside wood; the heart).  So, Spanish is well within the bounds of Latin usage for bone!

It’s not a huge leap to understand how the Latins could consider by extension that a pit is a bone: it’s at the core, it’s “structural,” it’s solid.  In fact, it kinda makes more sense than calling it a “stone” or “the wood” inside a plant!

So there you have it, my friends.

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2 Responses

  1. As Bill Brooks on FB notes: Rhetorical question/answer: when does it become a pit or a seed in English? I think it’s a pit when there is only 1 (avocado, peach, apricot) and it’s seed(s) when there are multiple (apple, pumpkin, orange). Might it not be the same in Spanish? Logical, yet irrational minds are curious too.

    Bill, I think you make another accurate & apt generalization. But more specifically, what appears to be only one seed can actually be a pod of seeds. Yet for the sake of a quick evaluation of when to call it a pit or a seed, the idea of one vs. many seems reasonable to me. I tend to like the detail, the geek that I am.

  2. […] (judging from the can) was olives — as long, of course, as we already knew that olives had seeds we call pits. (I embarrassed myself the other day by sloppily referring to figs as growing on […]

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