The Grammarphobia Blog

Wildlife preserve

Q: I make ­my own marmalade from oranges, lemon zest, and sugar. The other day I gave a jar of it to my aunt (an English teacher) and she told me that Mary Queen of Scots was responsible for the word “marmalade.” Is this true?

A: No, but a lot of people believe that Mary Queen of Scots was indirectly responsible for the name of this fruit preserve.

In fact, the actor Michael Caine fell for this story and mentioned it during a BBC interview a few years ago.

When Mary was ill, according to legend, her French-speaking attendants would bring her citrus preserves and say, “Ma’am est malade.

In some versions, the attendants said, “Marie est malade.” And sometimes the sufferer was Marie Antoinette.

The truth is that the word “marmalade” was around long before either Mary or Marie.

The first appearance of the word in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in a 1480 letter about a gift of oranges and marmalade, apparently sent to a student at Exeter.

So where does the word “marmalade” come from? It’s derived from marmelo, the Portuguese word for “quince,” which is what marmalade was originally made of.

“Close medieval trading relations between England and Portugal may account for the very early borrowing of the Portuguese word in English,” the OED says.

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