Misbeliefs: A Linguistic Look at a Beloved New Orleans Fruit

The residents of New Orleans have a history of creating unusual pronunciations of words. Local street names provide common examples of New Orleanians’ inventive pronunciations, such as Burgundy Street (pronounced bur-GUHN-dee, not BUR-guhn-dee) and a cluster of Uptown streets named for the nine Greek Muses, including Urania, Thalia, Euterpe, Calliope, Clio, Erato, Melpomene, Terpsichore, and Polymnia Streets. Another lesser-known example of the city’s linguistic creativity can be found with “misbeliefs,” the fruit of the Eriobotrya japonica tree, that New Orleanians also refer to as Japanese plums or loquats. [1]

Misbelief trees can be found throughout New Orleans.  Although the tree is native to China, it thrives in southern Louisiana’s climate. [2] One example of a misbelief can be found at 1226 Royal Street, a portion of the French Quarter highly populated by Italian immigrants in the late nineteenth century.

Unlike figs and other fruits mentioned in the early colonial period of New Orleans, misbeliefs are not recorded in letters, gardening articles, advertisements, or plant lists until the late 1800s. [3,4] The first mention of the misbeliefs in New Orleans coincides with a great influx of Sicilian immigrants to the city.

The first written evidence of misbeliefs grown in Louisiana appeared on May 29, 1883, in the Lagniappe column of the Times-Picayune, “Did you ever eat one of those Japanese plums grown in Louisiana? If you want something good wrap a piece of roller composition up in a piece of sheepskin and call it a Japanese plum.” Apparently, the writer was not a fan of the fruit.

How and why did these fruit trees and their fruit come to be called misbeliefs in New Orleans? Some New Orleanians, including blogger Dee Hollins, believe that Italian immigrants introduced the tree to the area and that the Italian name for the fruit probably evolved into the name misbeliefs. [5]

A 1989 analysis of plants referred to as “medlars” found that Eriobotrya japonica was incorrectly associated with the plant genus Mespilus, or specifically, Mespilus germanica which, unlike misbeliefs, are actual medlar plants. The study also revealed that the Italian word nespola was often used to describe medlars and other fruit. [6] In a 1905 travel book about Sicily, Eriobotrya japonica is listed as one of the fruits found on the island and states that this fruit was called nespoli by Italians. [7]

Similarly, in 1899, the Louisiana State Experiment Station was doing research on what they thought were three types of Mespilus germanica when in reality these were three different varieties of Eriobotrya japonica (misbeliefs) which they also called Japanese medlars. According to the same article in Economic Botany, there was no proof that true medlars were ever grown in Louisiana. [8] To make matters even more confusing, many New Orleanians also call misbeliefs Japanese plums even though they are not plums nor are they indigenous to Japan. In 1903, Amite City, a town heavily settled by Sicilian immigrants was described as the “great strawberry and Japanese plum parish of the State.” [9, 10]

According to Dan Gill, retired Consumer Horticulture Specialist at the Louisiana State University AgCenter, the name Mespilus japonica is an old Latin name for Eriobotrya japonica. Whether anyone ever used this name in New Orleans is unclear, but the transition from mespilus to misbeliefs could be possible.

Most Italian immigrants who came to New Orleans in the late 1800s were from southern Italy or Sicily and many spoke Sicilian rather than Italian. [11] The Italian word for the fruit nespoli does not sound phonetically similar to misbeliefs, but the Sicilian word niespuli sounds much closer to the word misbeliefs when sounded out. [12] (Listen to a recording of the Sicilian pronunciation below.)

Whichever word was misinterpreted as misbeliefs, it reminds us that New Orleans was a place where immigrants speaking foreign languages interacted with locals and made a lasting impact on the city’s culture. Sharing food is often a meeting point of different cultures. And while food habits typically remain after language has faded, the term misbeliefs, misunderstood as it was, survived to become a lasting part of the local language. [13]



Rosa Guccione, a lifelong resident of Sicily, pronounces "niespuli," the Sicilian word for the fruit. This pronunciation sounds phonetically similar to misbeliefs.
Source: Recording courtesy of Laura Guccione. ~ Creator: Interviewed by Laura Guccione. ~ Date: April 2, 2020
View File Record


Misbelief tree, 1226 Royal Street, New Orleans, LA