Putting the “straw” in strawberry

Yesterday while eating a bowl of fruit salad, I commented that I wondered where the “straw” in “strawberry” came from. My mom and wife both chimed in, saying that it referred to the straw that farmers put on the strawberry plants to protect them. I said that that sounded interesting, but not like a very convincing etymology. To appease my curiosity, I did a bit of searching. From the OED:

[OE. stréaw-, stréow, stréa-, stréuberi{asg}e, f. stréaw

STRAW n.1 + beri{asg}e BERRY n.
No corresponding word is found in any other Teut. lang. The reason for the name has been variously conjectured. One explanation refers the first element to STRAW n.1 2, a particle of straw or chaff, a mote, describing the appearance of the achenes scattered over the surface of the strawberry; another view is that it designates the runners (cf. STRAW n.1 3).
The view of Kluge, that OE. stréaw- in streawberi{asg}e is cogn. w. L. fr{amac}gum strawberry, is not phonologically satisfactory, and is also open to objection on other grounds.
]

And a bit more from Wikipedia:

The name is derived from Old English strēawberiġe which is a compound of streaw meaning “straw” and berige meaning “berry”. The reason for this is unclear. It may derive from the strawlike appearance of the runners, or from an obsolete denotation of straw, meaning “chaff”, referring to the scattered appearance of the achenes.

Interestingly, in other Germanic countries there is a tradition of collecting wild strawberries by threading them on straws. In those countries people find straw-berry to be an easy word to learn considering their association with straws.

There is an alternative theory that the name derives from the Anglo-Saxon verb for “strew” (meaning to spread around) which was streabergen (Strea means “strew” and Bergen means “berry” or “fruit”) and thence to streberie, straiberie, strauberie, straubery, strauberry, and finally, “strawberry”, the word which we use today. The name might have come from the fact that the fruit and various runners appear “strewn” along the ground.

Popular etymology has it that it comes from gardeners’ practice of mulching strawberries with straw to protect the fruits from rot (a pseudoetymology that can be found in non-linguistic sources such as the Old Farmer’s Almanac 2005). However, there is no evidence that the Anglo-Saxons ever grew strawberries, and even less that they knew of this practice.

The bold is my doing.

So, apparently, my mom and wife are not alone in thinking that the name is derived from putting straw on the plants.

The explanation based on the Anglo-Saxon verb streabergen is intriguing. I’m not sure where the Wikipedians came up with it, though. As far as I can see, there’s no citation for the explanation, and the OED mentions nothing similar.

1 thought on “Putting the “straw” in strawberry”

  1. In both Dutch and German no straw is involved. Roughly re-translated we speak of earth-berries. I suppose it’s one of those words that have muddled heritages and etymologies we’ll never find out. Just think of butterfly. No butter there. (And in other European languages this creature becomes vlinder, Schmetterling, farfalla, mariposa and papillon. Figure that out.)

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