Translatable but Debatable - Nana נענע

Translatable but Debatable: Nana

The talking heads of Israel, from the President on down, are excited about nanotechnology.  But let’s get excited for a moment about nanatechnology.  Our leading tea blender, Wissotzky, produces a nana tea that delights sophisticated tasters and makes immigrants like me say “What is nana anyway?  How do I say it in English?”

That nana plant isn’t present in your everyday English dictionary.  There is a kind of holly native to Texas, the ilex vomitoria, which is known as nana, but whereas Wissotzky’s nana tea will help settle your stomach, the ilex vomitoria will do the opposite.

On YouTube, Abbi Siler explains that the nana in Wissotzky’s nana tea is “kind of similar to the Moroccan mints, kind of found in the Mediterranean. It’s a spearmint leaf.”  I think she says “kind of” in the wrong places.  She means it’s similar to the Moroccan mints, it’s found in the Mediterranean area, and it’s a kind of spearmint leaf.  Right?  Because if nana and spearmint were simple synonyms, then she — and Wissotzky — would just say spearmint.  Granted, if you browse deep into Wissotzky’s English-language website, you’ll find a reference to “Nana (Spearmint) Tea,” but there has to be some gesture to readers who don’t know what nana is and I think Wissotzky  preferred to rubberstamp the oversimplification rather than bothering to explain.  As an American raised on regular spearmint, I believe I can taste the difference.

Hebrew Wikipedia says that nana is simply the word for “mint” in Hebrew, as it is in Arabic.  In Hebrew it can be spelled נענע or נענה.  The article goes on to note that in everyday spoken Hebrew, the word nana refers specifically to a mild mint, whereas peppermint is called menta.

Wikipedia lists four mints that grow wild in Israel, out of hundreds in the world.  They’re all suitable for tea.

In English, they’re pennyroyal, water mint, apple mint, and horse mint respectively.  Some have additional names, but none of them is nana in the sense that tea tasters would expect, although my wife says that if you ask for nana at the market you won’t necessarily get the same thing every time.  You’ll get what the guy at the market got.

According to a much-quoted sentence on the web (more than 7500 Google hits), the true nana is a cultivar of Mentha spicata (that is, of spearmint).  A spearmint spin-off.  “The cultivar Mentha spicata 'Nana', the Nana mint of Morocco, possesses a clear, pungent, but mild aroma and is an essential ingredient of Touareg Tea.”  A cultivar, according to wiseGEEK, is “a strain of a plant that has been developed through cultivation. It is not a new species, but it has some distinctive traits that set it aside from other plants in the same species. Cultivars are only seen in cultivation and they must be maintained by gardeners.”

A fellow named Tek Nickerson concurs, while protesting in response to a website that, according to him, shows phony nana:  “I noticed that the spearmint leaves you used in the film are serrated. Therefore, these leaves do not belong to the cultivar that is Touareg Tea, aka Moroccan Tea. That cultivar is Mentha spicata ‘nana’ and the leave edge is smooth. I know, because I have researched this subject and now am a grower of this plant for Moroccan Tea, aka Touareg Tea.”

On the other hand, my son refers me to German Wikipedia for a distinction between Mentha spicata var crispa ‘Morocco,’ which comes from North Africa and goes into “the Moroccan national drink,” and the real Mentha spicata var crispa ‘Nana,’ which comes from Asia Minor and is brewed in Iran, Turkey, and the Arab world.  (The article also lists a “nana” that is a cultivar of peppermint and which, the writer says dismissively, “has the typical mint aroma of all peppermints.”)

On packaging, I’ve seen the term “Moroccan spearmint” used for nana, and I’ve used it myself in translations, so I’m not happy thinking that maybe the real stuff is from Asia Minor and I should have written “Anatolian spearmint” instead.

I’ve written to Wissotzky and I’ll let you know if they answer.  In the meantime, feel free to post relevant comments of your own below.  But if your comment involves starting a discussion about a different word, please send it to me at ]]