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gink·go also ging·ko (gĭngkō)
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n. pl. gink·goes also ging·koes
A deciduous, dioecious tree (Ginkgo biloba) native to China and having fan-shaped leaves used in herbal medicine. The female plants bear foul-smelling fleshy fruitlike structures containing edible seeds used in East Asian cuisine, while the male plants are often grown as ornamental street trees. Also called maidenhair tree.

[Probably from ginkyō (with graphic confusion of a romanized form of this word leading to the spelling with -kg- in European languages) : Japanese gin, silver (from Middle Chinese ŋin, ultimately from Proto-Sino-Tibetan *ŋul; akin to Tibetan dngul and Burmese ngwe) + Japanese kyō, apricot, any of several members of the genus Prunus (from Middle Chinese xɦaːjŋ`, also the source of Mandarin xìng).]

Word History: The odd spelling of the word ginkgo, which hardly indicates the usual pronunciation (gĭngkō) very well, results from a botanist's error. In Japanese, the name of the ginkgo tree is written with kanji that can be read as ginkyō. The kanji that is pronounced gin literally means "silver," while the kanji pronounced kyō refers to several fruit-bearing trees of the genus Prunus, including the apricot. The kanji thus make reference to the green fruitlike structures that are borne by the female trees and contain a hard white inner seed covering similar to an apricot pit or pistachio shell. In Modern Japanese, however, these kanji are not read ginkyō but rather ginnan when they refer to the edible seeds and ichō when they refer to the tree itself. This complicated situation helps explain how the name of the tree came to be spelled ginkgo in European languages. The first Western scientist to learn of the existence of the ginkgo tree was Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716), a German physician and naturalist who visited Japan in 1691 and brought some seeds of the ginkgo back to Europe. During his stay in Japan, he also took notes on a Japanese work on botany and added comments on how to pronounce the names of the plants written in kanji. While taking these notes, Kaempfer apparently made a mistake and jotted down that the kanji literally meaning "silver apricot" were to be pronounced ginkgo. Later, he used these notes to prepare a book on the plants of Japan, and his mistake found its way into print. The great Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus perpetuated the error when assigning the scientific name Ginkgo biloba ("the two-lobed ginkgo") to the tree, and the spelling has been fixed ever since.
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ginkgo
Ginkgo biloba

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
 

Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices

    Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:

    Indo-European Roots

    Semitic Roots

    The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

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