Sometimes, the names attached to plants give
hints as to their origins. The Sanskrit word 'tila' and its
various transformations into other languages on the subcontinent,
have been seen as evidence supporting the antiquity of the crop,
sesame, in India. In a similar way, the transformations of the
Malay word 'ubi', for yam, through various cultures, have been
taken by some investigators as evidence for hypothesised dispersal
routes for the Asian yam.
Rumphius believed that the Indonesian name
'kacang botor' (kacang 'babator' in modern Amboina) for winged
bean was derived from an Arabic word meaning 'lobe'. Some modern
commentators have doubted this.
On linguistic grounds, the cultivation of winged
bean in India was thought to be a relatively late phenomenon,
but the suggestion that the Tamil name 'morisu avarai' might
point to Mauritius as a source of Indian winged bean is scarcely
more convincing than that the English name 'Goa bean' might
indicate a Goan origin.
Without much effort, we can compile from the
published literature a list of over 30 distinct names that have
been attributed to winged bean in New Guinea. Yet a similar
list for sweet potato would include more than 100 names. Lists
like these often include generic names along with item-specific
names at different levels of generalisation. Without detailed
analysis, such lists are not of great value in identifying crop
There is more work to be done in tracing the
various names that have been given to winged bean. They could
hold clues as to origins.