Oh, what an impressive-looking word this is. If you meet it never having seen it before, perhaps mentioned on a menu in a Vietnamese restaurant, you may imagine a sound like a taiko drum: a roll into a loud ram, off-beat bu, and sharper tan echoing away. Something aggressive like labdanum!
But if you look it up, you’ll find that the stress is on the second syllable. Well, that changes a lot, especially when you recognize that the last syllable is reduced in English to be like the end of tootin’. But you still have something that sounds like “ram boot in” (or, really, “ram bootin'”) – or, in England, “ram beaut in” – with that ram and, if you say it that way, the kicking sense of boot.
But actually, there’s nothing particularly rammish about a rambutan, nor any bootlikeness. And most people wouldn’t say it’s a beaut. Rather, try the echo of Rasputin (the common anglicized pronunciation). One thing you very likely know about Grigori Rasputin, if you know anything, is that he was hairy. And rambut, as it happens, is Malay for “hair”. In fact, rambutan is Malay for “hairy”. But a rambutan is not a hairy person. Rather, it’s a hairy fruit.
You might have seen them in an East Asian grocery store, perhaps. They’re related to lychees. They’re a couple of inches wide, they’re red, and they’re hairy. (There are also slightly smaller yellow ones.) Not exactly a thunderous, massive, hard, or imposing sight.
But they are a striking sight. They’re red, after all, and they have wild red hair, all around, like bedhead with gel: the hairs are thick ones. They’re reminiscent of Animal from the Muppet Show. You know, the crazy drummer with the wild red hair? Come to think of it, rambutan sounds like one of his crazed utterances – or perhaps even a riff on his drums.