The Latin noun asparagus is a borrowing from Greek ἀσπάραγος (= asparagos). The Medieval Latin form was often sparagus, whence English sperage (also sparage, after smallage, wild celery), which was the common name in the 16th and early 17th centuries. Meanwhile, the influence of herbalists and horticultural writers made asparagus familiar and this, in the form sparagus by omission of the initial sound, eventually replaced sperage. In The names of herbes in Greke, Latin, English, Dutch & Frenche wyth the commune names that Herbaries and Apotecaries vse (1548), the naturalist William Turner (died 1568) thus named the plant:
One kinde is called in Latin asparagus altilis, or asparagus alone, of the Poticaries sparagus, in Englishe Sperage, in Duche Spargen, in French Esperage.
And, in 1618, Barten Holyday (1593-1661), Church of England clergyman and poet, wrote:
Sperage, or, as it is brokenly called from the Latin’s, Sparagus.
But sparagus was itself altered by popular etymology to sparrowgrass, first attested in The English improver improved, or, The svrvey of hvsbandry svrveyed discovering the improueableness of all lands (1653), by the writer on husbandry Walter Blith (1605-54):
This Hop plantation would require a large discourse, but I shall contract my self to the briefest discovery therof I can possible [...]. I shall describe it thus, it comes up with severall sprouts like Sparrowgrass, runs up & climbs on an thing it meets withall, bears long stalk, hairy, and rugged leaves, broad like the Vine.
Another altered form, sparagrass, was used for example by the writer on household management Hannah Woolley (1622-circa 1675) in The gentlewomans companion; or, A guide to the female sex containing directions of behaviour, in all places, companies, relations, and conditions, from their childhood down to old age (1673):
A Bill of Fare of Suitable Meat for every Month in the Year.
1. Boil’d Chickens.
3. Roasted Capons.
1. Artichoak-Pye hot.
2. Westphalia Bacon, and Tarts
3. Sturgeon, Salmon and Lobsters.
4. A Dish of Sparagrass.
5. A Tansie.
Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) used the form sparrowgrass in his Diary:
20th April 1667—So home, and having brought home with me from Fenchurch Street a hundred of sparrowgrass, cost 18d. We had them and a little bit of salmon, which my wife had a mind to, cost 3s.
On 22nd April 1668, Pepys recorded going to “the Sparagus Garden”, but this was the name of a pleasure-garden—cf. The sparagus garden a comedie (1635), by the English playwright Richard Brome (circa 1590-1652).
The form sparrowgrass remained the polite name until the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, although botanists still used asparagus. In A critical pronouncing dictionary and expositor of the English language (1791), John Walker explained why sparagus had been altered to sparrowgrass, and remarked that the latter was in general usage:
Asparagus—This word is vulgarly pronounced Sparrow-grass. It may be observed, that such words as the vulgar do not know how to spell, and which convey no definite idea of the thing, are frequently changed by them into such words as they do know how to spell, and which do convey some definite idea. The word in question is an instance of it: and the corruption of this word into Sparrow-grass is so general, that asparagus has an air of stiffness and pedantry.
During the 19th century, asparagus returned into literary and polite use. In A “genteel” article, published in The Rose, the Shamrock, and the Thistle (Edinburgh) of December 1863, the author and Church of England clergyman Edward Bradley (1827-89), wrote, under the pen name of Cuthbert Bede:
I have heard the word sparrowgrass from the lips of a real Lady—but then, she was in her seventies, and was an Earl’s daughter and sister; and such, in her day, had been the accepted pronunciation for asparagus.