Apples and pears

A bit of mystery …

When you read the title of this post, did you think of the expression “to compare apples and pears”? I wouldn’t have, until recently. Awhile ago several of Lee’s European colleagues used that expression, which was new to us — for us the relevant comparison is “apples and oranges.”

I was curious about the differences, which led then to some not so helpful results, and more recently to more “fruitful” ones. Apparently the original comparison in English was with oyster (see here). Given that the meaning of the expressions is to compare things that are different and shouldn’t be compared, the oyster version makes more sense. Unfortunately, that excerpt doesn’t explain how oyster turned into orange. Apparently various other fruits should not be compared, depending on the language. Although pears show up in various languages, including English, both those first excerpts and the Wikipedia entry take apples and oranges to be the basic expression in English.

In addition (as it were), compare is not the only verb used. In Italian, the expression, which I just learned, is sommare pere e male (=to add pears and apples), which also puts pears first and apples second.

I was reminded of pears indirectly from reading another mystery novel by Marco Malvaldi, whose use of language I’ve talked about before. This novel, Odore di Chiuso (=The Smell of Enclosure), is different from the previous ones, in that it is a more high-brow book, set in the late 19th century with a culinary author, Pellegrino Artusi, as the detective protagonist. It’s slow going, largely because there is a lot of vocabulary that is new to me. As in his other books, some of it is regional (“Toscanisms”), while some of it is literary language, which I don’t know since I don’t read much literature in Italian (I read news and mysteries.)

One of the words I looked up was fradicio (=soaked; rotten), and in the Italian dictionary it gave this example:

una pera f[radicia] ne guasta un monte, con allusione fig. ai danni prodotti dal cattivo esempio.

= one rotten pear spoils a whole lot of them, with figurative allusion to the damage produced by a bad example

Source: Treccani dictionary

In other words, “one bad apple spoils the barrel.” The use of apple in this English expression goes back at least to Chaucer.

A fun comparison of apples and pears, though a bit of a mystery why some languages focus on apples and others on pears.