Eggplant, Aubergine, Brinjal and Mad Apple are, as you are probably aware, alternative common names for the edible part of Solanum melongena, as are also Jew’s apple, egg-apple, egg-fruit, garden-egg, patlican, baingan, berenjena, alberginia, melongene, pea apple, Guinea squash, and Apple of Sodom, to mention just a few. To add further confusion, and a great deal of frustration for food historians, it also sometimes shares the name ‘love apple’ with the tomato. The Oxford English Dictionary summarises the etymological situation perfectly under the entry for brinjal: “Few names even of plants exemplify so fully the changes to which a foreign and unintelligible word is liable under the influence of popular etymology and form-association.”
A couple of facts: the eggplant is, botanically speaking, a fruit, although culinarily speaking it is clearly a vegetable. It belongs to the same family (Solanae) as the tomato (also botanically a fruit) and the potato (botanically a tuber, not a root.)
A couple of theories: initially the English name ‘eggplant’ was given to the white form, the name ‘aubergine’ to the purple. The latter is supposedly derived from the French auberge, which refers to ‘a kind of peach’ – which only adds to the confusion as aubergine (the colour) is generally considered to be purplish not peachy. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first reference in English for each of these usages as:
Brinjal (as berenjaws) 1698
Eggplant (the vegetable/fruit) 1767
Aubergine (the vegetable/fruit) 1796
Aubergine (the confused colour) 1896
A rather pithy comment in The Gardener's Dictionary (London, 1754) by Philip Miller might be interesting here. I gave it in a previous post but it is worth repeating part of it here. Miller gives under the entry for Melongena, or Mad Apple (of which he describes four varieties):
...Of late, some Persons who were ignorant of the true Name of this Plant, have given it that of the Egg-plant, from a Resemblance which some of these Fruit bear to Eggs; but this is confusing people. … These Plants are only preserv’d as Curiosities in the English Gardens, the Fruit never being used in this Country, except by some Italians or Spaniards, who have been accustom’d to eat of them in their own Countries.
If your preferred name for Solanum melongena is ‘brinjal’, or one of its many variants (bringella, bringiela, er beringela etc. etc.) you are using (according to the OED) an Anglo-Indian adaptation of the Portuguese word, which ultimately comes, via Spanish and Arabic, from Sanskrit. So it is old, very old.
Two interesting etymology factoids: the Sanskrit name is said to reference the supposed wind-removing (anti-flatulence?) property: and in the West Indies, a further ‘corruption’ has led to the name ‘brown-jolly.’
It appears that knowledge of Solanum melongena by Europeans is a lot older than the OED entries would suggest. The Definitive Glossary of British India (commonly known as ‘Hobson-Jobson’, published in 1886) gives an extract from Simão Botelho’s Tombo do Estado da India.
1554: (At Goa) “And the excise from garden stuff under which are comprised these things: viz.: Radishes, beetroot, garlick, onions green and dry, green tamarinds, lettuces, conbalinguas, ginger, oranges, dill, coriander, mint, cabbage, salted mangoes, brinjelas, lemons, gourds, citrons, cucumbers, which articles none may sell except the Rendeiro of the excise, or some one who has got permission from him.
I have yet to look into the origin of the name ‘Apple of Sodom.’ I will keep you informed. In the meanwhile, I give you several recipes from The Art of French Cookery (London, 1827) by the French restaurateur, Antoine Beauvilliers:
The Aubergine is from the south and east, and has made little progress in this country; but they are an excellent herb, and must, as soon as known, be held in great estimation: they are of different sizes and colours; and are in appearance between the small gourd and cucumber.
Aubergines sur la Grille. Cut them in halves lengthways; do not take off the skin, but take off the stalk; put them in a dish; powder them with salt and pepper; baste them with a little oil; leave them to steep or marinade half an hour; put them on the grill; take care to baste them with their seasoning: when enough, serve.
Aubergines à la Tourtière. Cut them in two; take out the hearts as they do cucumbers; hash these hearts very fine; add parsley and shalots hashed; put all into a saucepan with a bit of butter: let it cook; put the Aubergines upon a tartpan; fill them with the ragout; put them into the oven and when done, serve.