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Carlos collecting Quercus ×alentejana (Q. faginea × Q. pyrenaica) in northeastern Portugal for his PhD thesis © Carlos Vila-Viçosa
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Plant Focus

Quercus crassipes acorns with inrolled cupule margin
One of the more well-known Mexican oaks in cultivation.

Acorn Onomastics

A friend recently sent me a link to a tweet that featured an oak-related term in Spanish I was not familiar with: cascabillo, meaning “cupule”. This was a surprise, as in Spanish I had always called an acorn cup a cúpula and never imagined there was another possibility. Cascabillo derives from cascabel, a rattle or sleigh bell, which makes sense as the acorn is contained in the cupule, the way the outer casing in a sleigh bell encloses a loose pellet (the word “cascabel” exists in English with that meaning, but is less common). Cascabillo can also refer to the hull that contains a grain of wheat or barley; cascabel is also used to refer to rattle snakes.

Sliegh bells
The Spanish word cascabillo derives from cascabel, meaning sleigh bell - Photo: Zephyris at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

The source of this information was a Spanish-language site called aceytuno.com, authored by Mónica Fernández-Aceytuno, a biologist and journalist. She set up the site to create the Diccionario Aceytuno de la Naturaleza (Aceytuno Nature Dictionary). Further exploration of the dictionary revealed other variants of cascabillo (cascabullo, cascabito) and yet more terms for cupule: coronilla (little crown) and mangurria (etymology unknown). I was already aware of the great variety of terms in Spanish for different oak species from when I researched the article ‘An Oak by Any Other Name’ (International Oaks No. 32), so that there should be so many words for cupule might have been expected.

Interestingly, there seems to be only one word in Spanish for acorn: bellota. However, Diccionario Aceytuno de la Naturaleza revealed that there are several terms for the acorns of Quercus suber. This species is unusual in that its acorns can ripen in as little as six months and is as much as 15. According to Francisco Vázquez Pardo, the species has two reproductive cycles in the same year, yielding two acorn crops in autumn-winter. A first crop matures in October/November, proceeding from female flowers produced in late summer of the previous year; then a second crop matures between November and January, proceeding from flowers that emerged in spring of the current year. Spaniards apparently have different names for these acorns, depending on when they mature: the first ones to ripen are called migueleñas or sanmigueleñas, in reference to San Miguel (Saint Michael), because they fall to the ground around that saint’s day, Michaelmas, September 29. They are also known as primerizas (first-timers) or breveras (perhaps related to breva, the term for an early fig). Those that mature in November, the second crop, are referred to as martinencas1, here in reference to San Martín (Saint Martin) whose day is November 11; they are also called segunderas (second-timers). Folk terminology attests to a third crop, ripening in December, which are named tardías (late ones) or palomeras (no etymology is given, but perhaps it derives from paloma, “pigeon”—because pigeons feed on them, one might guess?).

Quercus suber acorn, Grigadale Arboretum
A Quercus suber acorn in Grigadale Arboretum, Argentina, June 2020.
Adjusting for Southern Hemisphere seasons, perhaps this acorn would be called tardía? And is that one of next year's migueleñas forming beside it? © Stephanie Cameron

None of these terms can be found in the official Spanish dictionary (Diccionario Real de la Academia Española), except for cascabillo. Further search in this dictionary revealed that there is a word to describe the process of removing cupules from acorns: escabullar, apparently restricted to the region of Salamanca. In English the verb "hull" can refer to the process or removing the outer shell or pericarp of the acorn, but I am not aware of a word to describe the process of removing cupules from acorns. Given the fact the acorns are a traditional food in Spain, perhaps we should not be surprised that Spanish has a specific term for the action of separating an acorn from its cup. Spanish also has a word for harvesting acorns: belloteo; and the verb bellotear can refer to acorn recollection by humans, but also the action of wild boar when they rout for acorns and grunt to summon their young.

All this made me wonder whether other European languages might contain more interesting terms and etymologies surrounding the fruit of the oak. I have put together a quick list in a table you can view here, based on what can be found in a superficial search online. In general, the accepted terms for cupule in most languages derive from the Latin root cupula, from cupa (tub, cask, vat) + ula (diminutive suffix). Interesting exceptions are byskon mes in Cornish, which translates as “acorn thimble”, bolli in Icelandic, and Плю́ска (plyushka) in Russian, for which I have not found an etymology. The words for acorn tend to be related to the term for oak in each language; Romance languages and Slavic languages use terms that derive from the Ancient Greek βάλανος (balanos), which means both acorn and oak. If any reader knows of other words that have not been included, please add a comment in the Google Sheets table or click here to let me know.

1 In Catalan, martinenc is a name for the species Quercus pubescens, likewise derived from the date this species drops its acorns.