The Cocos Nucifera
iPhoneOgraphy – 15 Jul 2016 (Day 197/366)
The coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) is a member of the family Arecaceae (palm family) and the only accepted species in the genus Cocos. The term coconut can refer to the entire coconut palm, the seed, or the fruit, which, botanically, is a drupe, not a nut. The spelling cocoanut is an archaic form of the word. The term is derived from the 16th-century Portuguese and Spanish word coco meaning “head” or “skull”, from the three indentations on the coconut shell that resemble facial features.
Coconuts are known for their great versatility, as evidenced by many traditional uses, ranging from food to cosmetics. They form a regular part of the diets of many people in the tropics and subtropics. Coconuts are distinct from other fruits for their large quantity of “water”, and when immature, they are known as tender-nuts or jelly-nuts and may be harvested for their potable coconut water. When mature, they still contain some water and can be used as seednuts or processed to give oil from the kernel, charcoal from the hard shell, and coir from the fibrous husk. The endosperm is initially in its nuclear phase suspended within the coconut water. As development continues, cellular layers of endosperm deposit along the walls of the coconut, becoming the edible coconut “flesh”. When dried, the coconut flesh is called copra. The oil and milk derived from it are commonly used in cooking and frying, as well as in soaps and cosmetics. The husks and leaves can be used as material to make a variety of products for furnishing and decorating. The coconut also has cultural and religious significance in certain societies, particularly in India, where it is used in Hindu rituals.
One of the earliest mentions of the coconut dates back to the “One Thousand and One Nights” story of Sinbad the Sailor; he is known to have bought and sold coconut during his fifth voyage. Thenga, its Malayalam and Tamil name, was used in the detailed description of coconut found in Itinerario by Ludovico di Varthema published in 1510 and also in the later Hortus Indicus Malabaricus. Even earlier, it was called nux indica, a name used by Marco Polo in 1280 while in Sumatra, taken from the Arabs who called it jawz hindī. Both names translate to “Indian nut”. In the earliest description of the coconut palm known, given by Cosmos of Alexandria in his Topographia Christiana written about 545 AD, there is a reference to the argell tree and its drupe.
In March of 1521, an extremely detailed description of the coconut was given by Antonio Pigafetta writing in Italian and using the words “cocho”/”cochi”, as recorded in his journal after the first European crossing of the Pacific Ocean during the Magellancircumnavigation and meeting the inhabitants of what would become known as Guam and the Philippines. He explained how at Guam “they eat coconuts” (“mangiano cochi”) and that the natives there also “anoint the body and the hair with cocoanut and beneseed oil” (“ongieno eL corpo et li capili co oleo de cocho et de giongioli”). The journal then details how on the following week, Magellan’s expedition landed at Suluan east of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. There they were given gifts by the natives which included two coconuts (“dui cochi”), with indication that more coconuts would be brought later (“cochi et molta altra victuuaglia”). Pigafetta then goes into great detail on how coconut is used and processed by the Filipino natives:
It is evident that the name ‘coco’ and ‘coconut’ came from these 1521 encounters with Pacific islanders, and not from the other regions where it was found as no name is similar in any of the languages of India, where the Portuguese first found the fruit; and indeed Barbosa, Barros, and Garcia, in mentioning the Tamil/Malayalam name tenga, and Canarese narle, expressly say, “we call these fruits quoquos”, “our people have given it the name of coco”, and “that which we call coco, and the Malabars temga”.
Other stories to explain the origin of the word have been published. The OED states: “Portuguese and Spanish authors of the 16th c. agree in identifying the word with Portuguese and Spanish coco “grinning face, grin, grimace”, also “bugbear, scarecrow”, cognate with cocar “to grin, make a grimace”; the name being said to refer to the face-like appearance of the base of the shell, with its three holes. According to Losada, the name came from Portuguese explorers, the sailors of Vasco da Gama in India, who first brought them to Europe. The coconut shell reminded them of a ghost or witch in Portuguese folklore called coco (also côca).