Sunday, 9 January 2011

Herbs and Spices

Once again I have unearthed the content from an old article. As with a previous post this was written for a, now defunct, culinary magazine. Here the request was for the etymology of the names of herbs and spices - a list which was much longer than I would ever have expected, which is probably a reflection on my limited skills in the kitchen.
Delving into the world of place names I have often come across herbs and spices, particularly when discussing minor names such as those of hamlets and fields. This is by no means surprising for such were used by our ancestors to a much greater degree than we do today. This should come as no surprise for they had a limited selection of vegetables - indeed the leac or 'leek' was also used as a generic term for all vegetables, much as the hoover is used for all vacuum cleaners today.
Of course they were also responsible for their own health. Knowledge of specific treatments for a semmingly endless list of ailments was passed on from generation to generation. Nearly all meant drinking a potion concocted from a number of herbs (with the likely inclusion of less obviously edible vegetation), some of which have been shown to be beneficial treatments by present-day doctors and scientists.
The following list defines the name of each, given in alphabetical order for ease of reference:

allspice - was so-named in 1621 by the English, who thought it resembled a combination of the flavours of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.

angelica - is a name which certainly means 'the angelic herb' and was probably known as such for the many uses of its seeds, leaves, roots, and ever stems.

asafoetidea - a strange name which one would normally expect to have been shortened over the centuries it is a combination of Persian asa 'resin' and Latin foetida referring to its pungent, and rather unpleasant, odour. That it hasn't acquired an easier name is probably down to the many different names for this plant. Among the many known are devil's dung, stinking gum, food of the gods, dvil's sweat, the devil's herb, and in France as merde du diable meaning 'devil's shit'.

basil - can be traced back to Greek basilikon meaning 'royal'.

bay - comes through Old French baie and Latin baca meaning 'berry'.

borage - also comes from Old French and bourrache, itself from Arabic abu draq literally meaning 'the father of sweat' and a reference to its use in medicine as a sudorific.

burnet - can again be traced to Old French, this from burnete and descriptive of its brownish-red flowers.

cardamom - comes through Latin cardamomum and Greek kardamon describing the plant as 'cress'.

celery - examination of the leaves of the young celery plant will show why it is from French celeri, Latin selinon, and ultimately Greek selinon meaning 'parsley'.

chives - have a distinct flavour, reminiscent of a mild onion or leek. Hence no surprise to find the English name is derived from Latin cepa meaning 'onion', while the species name comes from prason 'leek'.

cinnamon - is from Phoenician and Hebrew through Greek kinnamomon meaning 'reddish brown', the colour of the bark of these trees.

clove - is named for the shape of its buds, the Latin clavus meaning 'nail'.

coriander - has a long written history which can be traced back to Mycenaean Greek koriadnon and thought to be some reference to Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos in Greek mythology.

cumin - has another long history, Latin cuminum, Greek kuminon, Hebrew kammon, Arabic kammun, Akkadian kamunu and ultimately Sumerian gamun. 'well-smelling'.

dill - unlike many others this is a comparatively recent name, thought to have been brought to Briton by the Saxons or Norsemen and means 'to soothe, lull', thought to describe its use for relief from dyspepsia.

fenugreek - the English name comes from the Latin foenum graecum 'Greek hay', although it resembles clover which is the reason for the Swedish name of bockhomsklover and German Bockshornklee both meaning 'ram's horn clover'.

fennel - comes to English from Latin fenicculum 'hay'. Interestingly to the ancient Greeks it was marathon said to have been named for it being found in the region of Marathon, hence the place name which, in turn, has given us the running event.

garlic - its English name comes from Old English gar leac 'the spear leek' from the shape of its leaves.

ginger - another which can be traced back to antiquity, the original language is unknown but would be related to Sanskrit srngavera and Tamil inji ver 'the horn body' telling us the shape of the root.

horseradish - mentioned in Greek mythology when the oracle at Delphi told Apollo that it was worth its weight in gold, it was certainly in use by the Egyptians four thousand years ago. The etymology of the English name is uncertain, traditionally it is said to be derived from the process of 'hoofing', this involves grinding up the root and blending with vinegar to capture the pungent aroma and taste which is prized, the basic root has no smell and unless blended quickly will lose its desired properties.

lovage - traditionally named from 'love ache', ache being a medieval alternative name for parsley, it is actually derived from the northwestern Italian town of Liguria where it was once grown extensively.

oregano - is the English pronunciation of origano an Italian word from Latin origanum and Greek origanon, 'an acrid herb'.

paprika - the modern word is derived from Hungarian paprika meaning 'pepper'.

parsley - can be traced back to the Greek petroselinon 'rock celery' and thus, as both must refer to the shape of the leaves, describes something which we will never understand as it undoubtedly comes from an unknown language.

pepper - the word can be traced back to Sanskrit pippali meaning 'berry' which the plants to sport at fruiting time.

rosemary - the present English is from the Latin ros marinus 'the dew of the sea' as it is a very hardy plant and requires no more than the water from the dew or sea fogs to survive.

saffron - this comes from Latin safranum and ultimately from the Persian zarparan meaning 'having golden stigmas', something all crocus plants to, the source of the world's most valuable spice.

sage - is from Latin salvia 'the healing plant'.

sesame - can be traced back to several Bronze Age cultures and their languages, both Babylonian and Assyrian referring to it as 'plant oil'.

tamarind - is a Latin version of the Arabic tamar Hind literally 'Indian date'.

tarragon - also known as the dragon herb, the name itself is derived from Arabic tarkhum 'little dragon'.

vanilla - the second most expensive spice after saffron, vanilla was unknown until brought back from the Gulf Coast of Mexico by Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the sixteenth century. This is the origin of the name of the spice referred to as vainilla or 'little pod'.

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