Of prunes and plums.

Speaking of synonyms,i I recently came across something calling itself a “Soft California Plum,” thinking that it was distinct from the system-evacuating prunes the more mature population knows and loves. But once home, I couldn’t help but notice that the French product description listed the black shriveled contents as “Prunes Molles de la Californie.” Not only that, but when I opened the bag, I thought to myself “My goodness these look an awful lot like prunes, was I duped ? Are these perhaps the same thing except with an American name and a Canadian/British name ? Like calling a police officer a ‘copper’ or a bobby?’ “

Let’s see here. For comparison, on the left here we have a Sun-Maid California Pitted Prune and on the right we have the aforementioned Trophy Soft California Plums.

prunes and plums

Having seen them side-by-side as you have, and having tasted them side-by-side (an exercise for the alert reader), you might agree that it’s very challenging to tell them apart… but not impossible! It would very much seem that there are two distinct products here, and yet… AND YET! the producers themselves use the words interchangeably, as is evident from the Sun-Maid USA website that advertises “Pitted Plums” while the Sun-Maid Canada website lists the exact same product as “Pitted Prunes.” Seems like marketing might be afoot…

It wasn’t long before I discovered that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the California Prune Board (CPB) permission to use “dried plums” instead of “prunes” in February 2001:

The CPB requested the name change after research showed that the name “dried plum” offers a more positive connotation than “prune” and would encourage more people to try the fruit. The CPB hopes the name change will attract its target audience, women 35 to 50. This group of 44 million people makes up approximately 16 percent of the U.S. population and makes the majority of household purchase decisions.

So yea, marketing, that last resort of the technically incapable and the competitively incompetent, was fucking up the labeling on my dried fruit packages. But what else is new ? That still didn’t confirm that “plum” and “prune” are synonyms. If anything, that the USG was diddling about down there only confirms that there’s more to this story than meets the eye.

After a bit more digging, it turned out that all prunes are plums but not all plums are prunes, which is to say that all men are mortal but not all things mortals are men. There are some 40 species of plums,ii which are of the genus Prunus and family Rosaceae and therefore closely related to almonds, peaches, cherries, and apricots, of which most (but not all!) prunes are dried up members of the Prunus domesticus species. This means that not only are these two terms not synonyms, but that I also wasn’t losing my marbles and that each of the two different brands seen above were selling different species of plums. Thus the confusion!

Long story short, a “dried plum” is what everyone in the world knows as a “prune,” it’s just that the USians were pulling their usual “words equal reality” trick in a vain attempt to cater to the people.

But I suppose we’re past the point of expecting sense from the impoverished Americas, y’know ?

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  1. As Herr Popescu recently remarked in Synonymy is a myth :

    The very notion that synonyms even exist is third grade logic. Sure, as far as a ten year old’s needs and abilities are concerned, “power” and “energy” are “the same thing”. Except they aren’t.

    What exactly are these synonyms you keep thinking about ? Which are they ? “Love” and “affect” ? Not so – one’s subjective, the other’s objective, in the fortunate circumstance where someone mentally stunted enough to even think in terms of “synonyms” can distinguish the noun from the verb.

    What is your prototypical pair of synonyms, exactly ? “Type” and “kind” ? One’s structured. “House” and “dwelling” ? A condo is not a house, but is a dwelling. If the text discusses condos and some derp changes an occurence of “dwelling” to “its synonym : house” wouldn’t you also score the text down, for apparent inability to use the noggin ?

  2. Plums are drupes, which are fruits with a hard stony pit surrounded by a (usually) fleshy ovary wall and a thin skin. Examples of drupes include plums, raspberries, and coconuts, so it’s a pretty diverse group!

2 thoughts on “Of prunes and plums.

  1. […] to donuts the fountains of fed-backed payola dry up like an sundried prune as soon as Herr Trump takes the White House. […]

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