In William Tarrant's 1862 Ningpo to Shanghai, he displays a highly Victorian aversion to calling rape (the plant) by its actual name. Instead of just using Latin, though, he opts for the bizarre coinage "Grassicher".

As far as Wiktionary knows, that word doesn't exist or is a misformed compound of 'grass' and 'safe'. Similarly, Google just seems to bring up a lot of discussions of the Polizei seizing marijuana in drug busts. Google Books mostly seems to break the two component words across sentences.

Does anyone know what Germanic word Tarrant was trying to say when he called rapeseed "Grassicher"?

  • 2
    It rhymes a little with Brassica (the botanical genus of rape) - maybe he tried to say that but misheard it somehow? Interesting question!
    – Arsak
    May 24, 2020 at 1:40
  • 1
    As you say yourself, it's not a German word. Just a mistake, not a mystery.
    – David Vogt
    May 24, 2020 at 5:27
  • 1
    Eh, maybe, but that isn't what I said. What I said is that my Googling didn't find anything that seems relevant. Then again it's possible it's a variant spelling or dialectical name or just something he cribbed some some German botanist whose phrasing never hit the mainstream. It seems much too distinct from Brassica to only be a garbling of that.
    – lly
    May 24, 2020 at 5:51
  • Perhaps you should also ask on "Earth Science.SE" with tag "agriculture".
    – Paul Frost
    May 25, 2020 at 14:01
  • @PaulFrost It's obviously a very minor usage. If there's a certain answer, it would involve pretty esoteric linguistic knowledge; since it's obviously not Latin and you guys are authoritatively downplaying any possible German connection, the only remaining place would be the English SE. I'm a bit loathe to bother though, since I doubt they'll be able to add anything to what you guys have put together here and it would just get shut down as opinion-based.
    – lly
    May 25, 2020 at 14:09

2 Answers 2


I highly suspect that Tarrant was not basing his word coinage on any German or Germanic term and did not intend any reference to the German word sicher. In fact, I would assume he intended the word to rhyme with richer, not with sicker – or, if he intended a long /i/ sound as in why, corresponding words; I cannot find a correspondence to richer off the top of my head but take hiker for sicker. (Wisher might be closer to the German pronunciation of sicher but not all English speakers know this finer point of German phonology.)

All of Tarrant’s known biography places him in British Hong Kong or adjacent China. While there was a German colony (‘concession’) in Hankou (present-day Wuhan), most other German possessions in East Asia were closer to Beijing and thus far away from the central or southern Chinese area that Tarrant is known to have been in. Unfortunately, Wikipedia doesn’t have information on his early life before he arrived in Hong Kong in 1837 – it also doesn’t even give an approximate birth date.

For the record, the passage of the book can be found on Wikisource, where also the footnote can be accessed. Tarrant directly references Robert Fortune’s Wanderings (Three Years’ Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China). It is clear that the plant he has been referring to is termed Brassica chinensis by Fortune and Tarrant himself described it as a variant of B. napus (rapeseed). So obviously, using rapeseed or B. napus wouldn’t have been accurate to Tarrant because he considers it a different plant thus precluding the use of the common name.

One other potential option is that this was a misspelling introduced by some scribe or copy-editor. Maybe Tarrant dictated Brassica but for some unknown reason it was misheard and thus written down as grassica/grassicher at that exact one spot in the book. On the other hand, Tarrant may have jumbled around a couple of letters of brassica – a term he was clearly familiar with.

Unfortunately though, barring the discoveries of additional diary notes or the likes of Tarrant or a medium contacting his soul in the realm of the dead we have no way of finding out for sure.

  • 1
    Another pointer: The source mentions "Grassicher Beans" and Brassica seeds are also called beans in some sources.
    – mic
    May 25, 2020 at 7:26

I doubt that it is German word (or belongs to another Germanic language). If one reads "Grassicher", one could think that it is a compound of the German words "Gras" and "sicher", but that does not make much sense. However, if an English reader believes it is German, he would perhaps pronounce it like "Grassica".

In your source we can read

Ningpo to Shanghai page 2

There is an other occurrence on p. 8:

Ningbo to Shanghai page 8

This shows that "Beans Grassicher" or "Grassicher Beans" is the name of some plant. As you write in your question, Tarrant wants to avoid calling rape by its actual name. I therefore believe, as pointed out in comments and Jan's answer, that Tarrant misspelled the Latin word "Brassica". Whether he really wanted to describe "Brassica napus" (rape) or "Brassica rapa" or something else in this family, remains open. Howewer, in combination with "beans" it is most likely that he meant rape.

enter image description here

PS. A Google search for "Grassica" yields hits like this and that. This shows that the same misunderstanding still occurs. Moreover, searching for "Krassica" which sounds similar yields a few results like this. The (German) text contains "Brassica", obviously the OCR software did not identify it correctly.


rastafile points out in a comment that Tarrant's book contains footnotes, in particular footnote (1) which gives an explanation of "Grassicher":

enter image description here

Tarrant refers to Robert Fortune's book "Three years wanderings in the northern provinces of China", see here. It seems that my theory that "Grassicher Beans" is a compound expression for a single plant is false. Probably it is just a missing comma between the two words. In Fortune's book one finds various listings of plants clearly showing this:

enter image description here

The cabbage oil plant is Brassica chinensis. It would be interesting to clarify whether the German translation of Fortune's book is the source of the strange word "Grassicher".


The German translatiuon can be found here. It does not contain the word "Grassicher". See p. 46.

enter image description here

  • 2
    This remains a big mystery. Did you follow the (1) footnote? There is a whole page of "notes" on Brassica napus and chinensis at the end. So why not "Brassica beans"? My guess is it was first acoustically misspelled to "Brassicher" (by the secretary) and then visually to "Grassicher" (by the printer). It was even his gazette...
    – user41814
    May 25, 2020 at 14:59
  • @rastafile No, I didn't, thank you for your comment. I shall edit my answer to include this infoemation.
    – Paul Frost
    May 25, 2020 at 23:29

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