I’ve posted here on the CanteleUSA blog a few times on different theories for the origin of Negroamaro’s name.
My training as a philologist and my discoveries of early mentions of Negroamaro have led me to agree with the authors of Wine Grapes (Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz) that the “black bitter” theory is the more probable etymology.
In a nut shell, I believe that the name — literally, negro or black, a synonym for red [grape], amaro or bitter — more likely owes its origin to the fact that the variety begins to appear at a time when many winemakers in Europe were shifting from sweet styles of wine to the drier style that we know today. The theory is supported by late-nineteenth-century mentions of the name side-by-side with negro dolce, literally sweet black.
But in true philological spirit, I wanted to share a note from my research that supports the competing theory, i.e., that the ampelonym comes from the Latin niger or black and the Greek mavros or black.
Proponents of this theory for the origins of the name point to the belief that “hybrid” names were common in antiquity. In the Koiné of ancient Mediterranean culture, they claim, things were often named twice, borrowing from the Greek and Latin terms for the same thing.
In my own research, I haven’t been able to identify examples of this. I did, however, stumble across an ancient linguistic phenomenon that does support the “black black” theory.
It’s called “hybrid tautology” by linguists. In other words, a repetition of the same word in two different languages (tautology is the “unnecessary repetition, usually in close proximity, of the same word, phrase, idea, argument, etc.”; Oxford English Dictionary).
And it’s commonly found in toponymy (i.e., the study of place names) in parts of Italy that were colonized by the Greeks in antiquity.
The township name Linguaglossa (Sicily) is an example of this where the Latin lingua and the Greek glossa both mean language or tongue.
Mongibello, one of the names for Etna (also in Sicily) is another example, where the Latin mons for mountain is combined with the Arabic gebel, which also means mountain.
Here’s the link to the page on the Treccani website where I found these examples. And there are others as well (in case you’re not familiar with the Treccani encyclopedias, they are akin to the Encyclopaedia Britannica in English).
The fact that Puglia was also a Greek colony lends weight to the theory that the grape name could be a hybrid tautology.
But I would counter that the name Negroamaro only begins to appear in the nineteenth century and we simply don’t have any examples of it before then. I still believe that its are much more recent and it would be a stretch to point to precedents in ancient toponymy that were formed during the classical age.
As I always point out when I write about the origins of grape names, philology is an inexact science and it rarely delivers definitive, black-and-white answers (excuse the pun).
The great thing about research like this is that opens up a window into the past and the great cultural treasure of Italy and the Italians.
Thanks for reading.