Litchi predicts the fate of Web 2.0

This has been a grand year for litchis (Litchi chinensis) as far as we are concerned. The bowl you see here is the final batch, which we found at the local vendor a little after the end of the season. These photogenic red skinned litchis are not the best though. For almost a century, the queen of litchis has been the variety from Muzaffarpur, a district of Bihar just north of the Ganga. The season for this variety lasts for about two weeks, and the skin is a dusty brown in colour. But for all that, the fruit is juicy and delicious.

As I began to write this post I wondered why the spelling that I use, litchi, is beginning to be eclipsed by lychee. Both are transliterations of the Chinese word for the fruit (荔枝, which in Pinyin would be written as Lìzhī). Litchi was the first published transliteration, having been used in the first botanical description published in 1782 by Pierre Sonnerat. I turned to Google ngrams, and found that the alternative spelling has been popular in brief spurts in every century. The first time lychee eclipsed litchi was in 1860s. Then again the variant was briefly dominant in the 1960s. My guess is that these spurts are due to passing cultural fads. So what could be the recent dominance due to?

The spelling lychee outdid litchi for a period which started in late 2005. Recently litchi has been catching up again. Casting a net for the name of the fad, I found that the phrase Web 2.0 closely tracks the excess of lychee over litchi. Is the declining dominance of the spelling lychee then an indicator that the social media boom is now heading to a bust?

Litchi time

This week The Family found litchis at our bhajiwala. When I was a child, litchis (Litchi chinensis) would herald the beginning of a wonderful period of the year. Two weeks of litchis, a couple of months of mangoes, and then the monsoon: that is the rhythm of summer in the sub-Himalayan plains of India. I didn’t realize then that this seemingly unchanging marker of time was historically recent.

The litchis that we eat originally come from southern China, the region of Hainan, Guangxi, Guangdong, and Yunnan, and north Vietnam. They still grow wild in virgin forests in this region. They were taken to northern China as early as the first century BCE. Litchis were first cultivated in Myanmar only as late as the 18th century CE, and were brought to India a few decades later, at the very beginning of the 19th century. Even now, most of the acreage given over to litchi in India is in UP, Bihar, Assam, and Tripura.

There were two varieties that I specially remember from long ago: the rose scented Shahi of the first week, and the Purbi from the second week. I suppose the Shahi variety was named after the nawabs of Awadh, since litchis arrived in India after the decline of the Mighals. The few that finally arrived on our table this week were the sweet but thick-skinned Purbi.

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