4 May 2016


As loofahs are often used for washing in a similar manner as a sponge, many people don't release that in fact it's a vegetable. They can be eaten, but after ripening the fruit can be boiled to remove the flesh, leaving the familiar wiry form. In Japan, the source of loofahs is well known. However, the origins of the Japanese name are rather convoluted.

The fruit first arrived in Japan during the Edo period, and due to it's fibrous nature it was known as 糸瓜: thread gourd. いとうり became shortened to とうり, and this name was current for a while. The modern word is へちま, which is derived from the older form.

In order to explain how, we have to take a bit of a diversion.

In modern Japanese, the kana is ordered in あいうえお order. It's a nice, straightforward way of systematically ordering the characters. However, formerly a more poetic order was favoured.

The いろは poem uses each kana once, and at the same time including some rather esoteric Buddhist philosophy.

The important part is in the first two lines of this poem.

A loofah is とうり, a ' gourd'. is between and in いろは order. means 'space' or 'between', so へちま means between へ and ち. Therefore (?) うり is へちま. This probably started life as a riddle, but for some reason it caught on as the actual name for a loofah, to the point where とうり isn't even a word for it any more. But the original name lives on: へちま is still written in kanji as 糸瓜.

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