There were four of us at lunch, and Maury was talking: “I had a kiwi for supper the other day, and—”
Elisa and I interrupted him simultaneously. “You ate an apteryx?” I asked. “That’s not very much,” Elisa declared. Then Elisa turned to me and said, “An apteryx? A-pte-ryx. I like that word. What does it mean? Another word for kiwi?”
“Have you ever been a reader of the comic strip B.C.?” Jess asked Elisa. “There’s an apteryx in it from time to time, and the first thing it always does is explain what it is: ‘a wingless bird with hairy feathers.’ It’s from Greek a ‘not’ and pterux ‘wing.’ So it is another word for kiwi, yes. But probably not the kind you have in mind, and James is being disingenuous.”
“Knowing Maury, it seems entirely possible,” I said, forestalling another bite of my Cobb salad. “Nor did he say kiwifruit, which he probably would for the sake of precision.”
Elisa furrowed her brow and looked at her tropical salad. “But kiwifruit is just a long way to say kiwi, isn’t it? Like this.” She held up a piece of kiwifruit on her fork.
“Rather,” Maury said, “it’s a short way to say Chinese gooseberry. Like that.” He gestured at Elisa’s fork.
“This isn’t a gooseberry!” Elisa protested.
“No,” Jess said, “it’s a Macaque peach.” She smiled just slightly with the right corner of her mouth. She did have a slight sadistic side underneath all that pleasantness.
“Okay, now I’m lost,” Elisa declared, and attacked her salad with renewed vigour.
“Kiwifruits come originally from China,” I explained. “When they were introduced to New Zealand, the New Zealanders thought they tasted somewhat like gooseberries, so they called them Chinese gooseberries, although they had previously been called a number of other things, including, as Jess says, Macaque peach. And several things in different dialects of Chinese.”
Elisa swallowed. “So why did they get called kiwi? After the New Zealanders?”
“After the bird,” Maury said.
“The bird you had for supper?” Jess asked with feigned innocence. She took another bite of her grilled cheese and bacon sandwich.
“She was one of them, yes, in a manner of speaking,” Maury said, and picked at the third row of his Cobb salad. (I toss mine together; he keeps his in rows and he objects if it arrives tossed.)
“You guys! Stop it!” Elisa exclaimed. “I feel like I’m the only one not in on the joke!”
Jess took pity. “The apteryx,” she explained, “a wingless bird with hairy feathers, is indigenous to New Zealand; in fact, it’s the national symbol. The word for it in Maori, the Polynesian language of New Zealand, is kiwi, apparently an imitation of its call. New Zealanders are called kiwis after the bird. The fruit is called kiwifruit perhaps because it looks like the bird – round, brown and hairy – but certainly because it comes from New Zealand. Well, now it does.”
“When they started exporting them to America,” I added, “China was not seen very favourably. Kiwifruit was good marketing.”
“But with the ascendancy of the fruit in North America,” Maury noted, “the apteryx has become more of an asterisk.”
“Where did you guys learn this stuff,” Elisa asked, “Kiwipedia?” She smiled at her joke, then licked her lips. “Kiwi. Ki-wi. Sounds kinda like peewee. Or—” she speared another piece and took it on a roller-coaster ride through the air— ”wheee!”
“Or QE2,” I said, “a cruise ship. Or QEW, a highway on which cruise control is largely out of the question. Or maybe key lime.”
“It looks nice on paper, too,” Jess said, “the k and w all angular at a 90-degree rotation, and the two i‘s. And it’s velum to lips when you say it, almost like a wee kiss.”
“Yeah,” Elisa said, all happy. She paused. “But wait. You had one for supper? A kiwi bird?” She looked at Maury.
“Yes,” he said, “she was from Auckland. Just flew in.”
“Well, at least auks fly, unlike kiwis,” I said. “But I hope it wasn’t awkward.”
“No, she was quite pleasant,” he declared. “Charming accent. Very happy not to be mistaken for an Aussie.”
“Bird is New Zealand slang for ‘girl,’” Jess explained to Elisa. “Also Australian and British.”
The penny dropped. “You had a girl from New Zealand over for supper!” Elisa beamed. “So what did you serve her?”
Maury speared the last piece of his salad and paused it in midair. “Chinese goose.”