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Friday, July 12, 2013

Inflamed almonds

I was at my German conversation class the other day when one of the participants announced she had had inflamed almonds. Thinking there might be a tasty recipe involved that I could share with you, I inquired further... only to discover that, in addition to meaning "almond", the German word Mandel means ... tonsil. Not quite so tasty.

At this point in my blog, I would usually include a helpful picture showing you how much tonsils look like almonds, but really, the ones I found on Google were just too repulsive. Trust me, they look like almonds.

For a few centuries after the first appearance of "almond" in English, we too used this word for the almond-shaped glands of the throat, but by the 1800s the much more learned-sounding "tonsil", derived from Latin tonsilla, took over. 

But most European languages still use an almond-related word for the tonsils, even though  you might not recognize it as such. French uses the much fancier-sounding amygdale, but amygdala was simply the Latin word for, you guessed it, "almond".  In English, the word "amygdala" also exists, but for a roughly almond-shaped mass of grey matter inside each cerebral hemisphere, involved with the experiencing of emotions.

Amygdala is in fact the source of the word "almond", though you might not think it. In late Latin the word morphed into amandula and from there into the French amande. In Norman French, the variety that landed in England in 1066, the L in the final Latin syllable had somehow migrated to the beginning of the word, so we ended up with "almond". Originally this would have been pronounced, but L's after a vowel and before an M tend to get swallowed up and pronounced as a vowel themselves before disappearing entirely, so we ended up saying "AH-m'nd". The same thing happened with "calm" and "psalm" and "palm" (for more about which, see this post).

But as universal literacy took hold in the late 19th century, people started to think they should pronounce the L that they saw before their eyes, so now once again we have both pronunciations: AH-m'nd and AHL-m'nd. What is the correct way to pronounce "almond"? A recent survey I did showed that about 60% of Canadians do not pronounce the L while 40% do.  Meanwhile, 100% of the Americans who responded pronounce the L, but as there were only 5 of them, the only conclusion I can draw is that the L-ful pronunciation is likely more common than the L-less one among Americans (though American dictionaries list it second). Both pronunciations have to be considered correct.

Well, after all this talk about almonds, I feel I do have to provide a tasty recipe after all, so here's a "Mandelkuchen" from my favourite German cake book (I sure hope they meant almonds and not tonsils!) It has next to no flour (in fact I suspect you could leave the flour out altogether, or replace it with cornstarch), so helpful for those avoiding gluten.

Almost-Gluten-Free Almond Cake

6 eggs
165g sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 heaping Tbsp flour
1 tsp baking powder
250 g ground almonds (either blanched or unblanched)

Beat eggs until foamy. Beat in sugar, vanilla and cinnamon until fluffy. Mix ground almonds with  flour and baking powder, beat in on low speed. Pour into a parchment-paper lined 13X9" pan. Bake at 400 degrees about 15-20 minutes. Turn out immediately onto a sugar-strewn piece of parchment paper. Brush the paper attached to the cake with cold water and remove carefully but quickly. Let cool, cut in half lengthwise, fill and ice with chocolate icing or whipped cream.


  1. Hello,

    After stealing (OK, borrowing, with no return date) "migdale" from the French, we also innocently ended up with a kind of (coffee ?) candy, called "amandine".

    I still miss them.

  2. what about the L in talk and walk; where does it come from? I am constantly correcting my ESL students that we do not pronounce it. Am I wrong?

  3. Im Canadian and have never heard a single person say ahmond


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.