Mmm, maple. Look, I’m a good Canadian, but in spite – or perhaps because – of that, I don’t think of the maple leaf first when I hear maple. (I even live in Toronto, home of the unspeakably abysmal Toronto Maple Leafs, run by an appallingly greedy and complacent organization, and nonetheless – or perhaps with even greater cause – don’t think first of maple leaf.)
Nope, I think of maple syrup, and in ample amounts. And maple sugar. And those leaf-shaped cookies, but I think of them because of the flavour first, not the shape. Oh, maple syrup is truly ambrosia. It’s just aces with me. When I was a kid growing up in Alberta, we didn’t get a whole lot of it. My brother came back from a school trip to Quebec with a can of the stuff and we enjoyed it thoroughly in a variety of ways (if you can ever have grand-pères au sirop d’érable, little dumplings swimming in maple syrup, do). I’ve been known to mix maple syrup with vodka (or Everclear) for a pleasant beverage. I simply won’t buy any other kind of syrup now. (And am always disappointed, but never surprised, when a restaurant’s syrup, called “maple syrup” on the menu, turns out to be the usual cheap corn syrup with fake flavour.)
But hey, I grew up in Alberta, where there are no maple trees (not that I ever saw, anyway) – ironic, given that they’re all over much of North America and Europe and even East Asia (mostly not the sugar kind, though), but there I was, in a country with a maple leaf on the flag, and no maples in sight. My dad came back from a trip one time with a couple of big maple leaves and I was seriously impressed. It was sort of like getting a visit from the prime minister or something. We stuck them in the edge of the frame of a painting.
Meanwhile, there are Maple Streets galore in the eastern US and Canada, and even towns named Maple in Ontario, Wisconsin, and Texas. The maple is such a common motif in Canada and the US that we might as well dance around the maple, rather than the maypole, on Mayday. And if the maple leaf is not truly distinctively Canadian, well, neither is the beaver, and anyway maple syrup production is indigenously North American – the First Nations people invented it. Making it more truly Canadian than any prime minister this country has ever had.
The word maple, on the other hand, is not originally Canadian, but it is Anglo-Saxon. A maple tree in Old English was a mapulder, which had a tidy analogy with apulder “apple tree”. There are places in England with names such as Mappleton and Mappleborough thanks to maple trees. The Latin name for the genus, as it happens, is Acer – a word etymologically unrelated to maple or even to ace.
The word maple is so common, and it brings such delicious taste memories to the mind’s tongue, that it doesn’t get such a strong influence from similar words – it’s more likely to give influence to them. Mind you, many resemblant words are equally well established. Most of the -ple words are so common that it’s hard to pinpoint any common taste they get from the ending: simple, purple, ample, people, pimple, scruple, steeple, trample, dumple… OK, that last one is jokey; dumpling does not come from some verb dumple – rather, there is a rare verb dumple backformed from dumpling (and meaning, roughly, what one does to those bits of dough when making grand-pères). The /pl/ ending always seems to me to be like a little folding-over, as of a piece of paper (or a palm, or a leaf), but I can’t say quite why. I wonder what taste it has for others.
On the other hand, at least two fictional characters have names that smack a bit of maple for me: Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (also tasting of marble), soon to be played by Jennifer Garner, WTF are you kidding me (and transposed to the US too, how unspeakable), and the Shadout Mapes, a character in Frank Herbert’s Dune.
The latest news (as I write this) for maple syrup is from that fertile field of fatuousness, health reporting. The news media are running little “whaddya know” stories about a study commissioned by maple syrup producers. It turns out that maple syrup has a whole lot of antioxidant phenolics in it. So it must be really good for you, eh? Well, I’ll take it over corn syrup any day, but come on, folks: it’s sugar. And phenolics are pretty common in fruits and vegetables. Just enjoy it because it’s enjoyable, with no excuses. If you can enjoy words, you can certainly enjoy a bit of maple syrup.