odorra pod

Consider the odorra pod. It grows in an Egyptianesque climate and is, for whatever reason, relatively rare. It may be hard to grow. It’s a cheery pink, long and narrow, contrasting with the plant’s vivid green leaves. It’s not a smooth pod, but scalloped, the lumps likely tracing interior beans. The pod is hard to open, although quite how hard, I cannot tell you: does it require pliers? In any event, when sufficiently boiled, it becomes a dish so covetable that it is traditionally served to its native land’s royal family as a first course.

There. Now you are one of the world’s experts on the odorra pod. There is nothing else to know about it. Not the plant it grows on, not its genus and species, not its care and feeding. Unless its creators choose to make up more about it, I have given you all there is to know about the subject.

The odorra pod, you see, is a fictional food with a made-up name. It exists on the all-ages gaming website Neopets, where it can be sold, bought, and eaten, although what it tastes like, I do not know.

Never before have so many food names been made up so frequently. Humans are immensely creative in the foods they create, but they don’t often coin wholly new words to describe them. Made-up food names, however, are a staple of many kinds of worlds from fantasy and science fiction, and a quick way to give verisimilitude to the alienness of a different world or place. They mimic the sheer variety of food and food-words among cultures in the real world. As a consequence, the burgeoning market for gaming in fantastical surroundings has led to more foods being made up. As players explore a world, they can encounter new and strange edibles, sketched out superficially.

In novels, there’s generally an incentive to limit the number of made-up foods, as there’s only so many invented words that a reader can feasibly learn without being distracted from the story. (See xkcd and Jo Walton’s recent column for Tor on made-up words.)

In explorable online worlds, in contrast, there is no effective limit, as each new creation adds the illusion of depth. Most of those foods, however, are no more well-rounded than the graphics which define them, and the assumptions about recognizable words within their names (“pod”) that the reader brings to them.


We were in a village in the Colli Euganei, odd volcanic hills near Padua. Our host walked us up to the top of his back yard and plucked nespole from the laden tree. They were pale brown-purple, stiff shard-like teeth lining the gaping basin on one end, halfway between apple and rosehip. I recognized them, but it was several moments before my mother remembered that in English, they are called medlars.

The medlar was used in ancient Greek and Roman cooking. Chaucer mentioned them on a number of occasions, including in the Romance of the Rose, where they are included in a list of fruits. They were common in the English diet at least until the Victorian era, where recipes for them appear regularly. Although they can ripen on trees, they are more usually collected for maturing, or “bletting“. They are ripe when half-rotten.

This month’s Restaurant magazine has a special on them which, while trying to raise awareness of the fruit, emphasizes the degree to which they are still largely out-of-style. When the journalist was searching for suppliers to recommend, two of the could-have-been suppliers so dislike the fruit that they called it “one of the most disgusting things they’d ever tasted”. (Nov. 2009, p. 59) Presumably neither stocked them.

“Medlar” is an interesting word, but this is about the “nespola”, which, despite being Italian for the same fruit, appears in its own right in the OED. It does not appear in Merriam-Webster online, nor any of the other English dictionaries I casually checked; yet the OED thinks it occurs frequently enough in English, as an English word, to warrant an entry. Both “medlar” and “nespola” ultimately derive from the same root, the Latin mespilum.

Nespola entered as an English tourist, a direct import from the Italian. The oldest attested use of it in English, in a story called “Gianetto”, is translated: “Helen putting the finishing touches to a drawing she had been making of a great bunch of nespoli, or medlars; I myself lazily smoking, and reading a very stupid Italian novel”. The author of the 1875 article in the New York-based Littell’s Living Age (29 May 550) offers it as a foreign word, as ambiance.

The next several instances are unglossed by their sources. Their authors might be after ambiance, might assume the audience’s knowledge, or, possibly, medlars were already going out of fashion and the authors simply didn’t know if a translation was available in English. On the 29th of April, 1883, Lady Monkswell, in her Diary, notes “lemon trees in pots, trees of magnolia (not in flower) & nespola”. In 1910, Maude Howe, in Sicily in Shadow & in Sun (ix. 275), wrote of “the gorgeous dark green foliage of the nespoli, whose fruit ripens much later”. (“Nespoli” are medlar trees.) In 1928, Rose Macaulay, in Keeping up Appearances (iii.23), wrote, “She bought nespoli and cherries”, using the word for the tree interchangeably with that for the fruit.

An 1893 US Bureau of Manufactures report comments on an insect which lays its larvae into fruit: “the nespola, nectarine, and apricot suffer equally”. (Vol. 41, issue 148-151, p. 262). A University of California publication called My Garden (1999, p. 220) also uses it untranslated: “The nespola looks like an apricot, tastes something like a pomegranate, and contains three stones.”

The OED‘s most recent instance of “nespola”, from a review in The Indepedent (2000, 9 Dec.) of The River CafĂ© Cook Book Green, translates nespole (plural) as “Japanese medlars”, or loquats. Loquats used to be thought more closely related to medlars than they are known to be today. I wonder what the cookbook actually says.

The use of “nespola” in English is not, I suspect, an act of linguistic superiority so much as it is ignorance, as medlars have fallen gradually out of fashion and out of consciousness over the course of the past century. Without knowing the fruit and its traditional uses, the “nespola” is read in English as wholly exotic, its name untranslatable.

*© S. Worthen 2009