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Issue 91   

June 26, 2000
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veg-edibles part II

Sometimes we think the universe conspires against us.  No sooner had we published last week's discussion of lettuce than we read a curious tidbit from one the more obscure Greek myths.  The goddess Hera, sister and unwilling wife of Zeus, ate a salad of wild lettuce leaves and thereby conceived Hebe, goddess of youth.  Does this mean that people ate wild lettuce before Lucullus?  Or could this imply that its narcotic properties were employed in obstetrics?

So, this week, as promised, another serving of vegetables where we concentrate on the umbellifers or "the carrot family"

Bugs'll probably show up soon.The wild carrot plant (Daucus corota) has a spray of tiny flowers called an umbel.  Every one of these flowers is white except for one, which is pink.  The first person who decided that the wild carrot was edible must have been very hungry as its root is thin and woody.  For some reason, daucus, the usual Latin word for "carrot" never caught on in any other languages.  Instead, Latin itself borrowed carota from the Greek word karoton and passed it along in some form or another to most of the languages of Europe.

The vegetable carrot has, of course, no connection to the jeweler's carat but we'll talk about it anyway.  A carat is a weight.  A small weight.  Very small... there are 150 to the ounce.  Well, at least, there are these days.  In days of yore there might have been 144 or even 24 carats to the ounce.  Obviously, in those days it paid to keep abreast of the local conversion rates.  Carat comes from the Greek keration "little horn" and refers to the fruit of the carob (Ceratonia siliqua) tree.  Let us, who have seen  their withered brown pods littering the sidewalks of Santa Clara, assure you of the accuracy of that description.  Originally the seeds themselves were used as weights and their use was adopted by the Arabs who traded all over the Mediterranean.  They pronounced keration as qirrat and it was this Arabic word which entered Italian as carato and French as carat.  Despite the resemblance in sound, the word carob is not related to carat.  It comes instead from the Persian khirnub "bean-pod" via Arabic kharroubah and Italian carrubo.

Just to digress a little further, the little upside down v used by proofreaders is called a caret.  Again it not a vegetable but, hey, who makes the rules here?  Those old proofreaders were an erudite bunch.  They left notes to each other in Latin, for one thing.  The instruction stet is Latin and is the hortative voice of sto, stare "to stand".  It thus means "let [it] stand" and is used to "undo" a previous instruction.   Likewise, caret is Latin for "[something is] wanting", from carere, "to need".

There are many other edible umbellifers, of course.  The parsnip, like the carrot, has an edible root.  Its  name is connected with the Latin pastinare "to dig a trench" and with pastinum, a two-pronged digging-fork.  This is precisely analogous to calling potatoes spuds, for spud, literally, means spade.

Celery is another relative of the carrot.  Its name, which many authorities relate to Latin cullerThe attack of the celery people! "swift", actually comes from Greek selinon, "parsley".  It has a wild, pungent form called smallage, the name of which was once small-acheAche is another wild umbellifer, you see, which accounts for the unfortunate plant name loveache.  This was a rural corruption of lovage, another celery-like plant which had been called levisticum in Latin.  A foul-smelling extract called opopanax was made from lovage-juice.  We assume that it was revered as a cure-all for its name comes from Greek opos "juice" + panax "all-healing".

Other edible umbellifers - 


Carum carui

Another Arabic herb, this started as karawiya and was taken into Latin as carui.   Note that the Scottish form carvy is closer to the Old French carvi.

Archangelica officinalis

Medieval Latin herba angelica means  "angelic herb". Also called "root of the Holy Ghost", this fragrant herb takes  its name from its reputation as an antidote to poison and pestilence.

Narthex asafœtida 

"Stinking gum", from Persian azâ "mastic" +Medieval Latin fœtida "ill-smelling, stinking". A resinous gum, with a strong garlicky odour, this extract of an umbellifer was used  as an antispasmodic medicine, and as a spice.

Melanie's granny remembers wearing an "asafettidy bag" around her neck as a child to ward off fevers 


Coriandrum sativum

From Greek koriandron, of uncertain origin, perhaps Phoenician. An early popular variant of the Latin name was coliandrum which gave rise to the Old English cellendre and the modern English variant coliander.  Cilantro, the name by which most Americans know coriander leaves, is the Spanish descendant of coliandrum.

Cummin cyminum

From Greek kuminon but ultimately, probably from a Semitic name (compare Hebrew kammôn and Arabic kammûn) We now associate this spice with Middle Eastern cooking but it was so well-known in the Anglo-Saxon era that there was an Old English word for it: cymen.

Anethum graveolens

Possibly from a Norse word dilla  meaning "to soothe". Dill-water has long been used as a way of calming teething babies.  If "soothe" is indeed the root meaning of dill then it is also related to dull.

Also called anet, it is sometimes confused with its relative anise in old herbals.



From Latin fæniculum, a diminutive of fænum "hay" Grows wild around San Francisco.

Conium maculatum


Old English is hymlice but no cognate word can be found in other languages.

As the plant which killed Socrates, hemlock must be one of the most famous poisons.  Oddly, the only research on its toxicity was carried out by a 19th century German medical student who drank extract of hemlock every day for six months.  Apart from his tongue going blue he felt no ill effects.

Petroselinum sativum

Clerical Latin petroselinum, from the Greek petro- "rock" + selinum "parsley". Calling this rock-parsley helps to distinguish this plant from the other selinon which was celery.

We can't leave the umbellifers without a nod to some of their less celebrated but splendidly named members.  Toothpick or picktooth (Ammi visnaga) was actually used for that purpose.  Dead-tongue (Œnanthe crocata) causes paralysis of the organs of speech and baldmoney (Meum athamanticum) grows wild in Scotland.  Thoroughwax is not at all waxy but has stems that wax (= "grow") thorough (= "through") their leaves.  Our favorite has to be pellitory, a name given to two separate species.  One (Imperatoria ostruthium) is called great pellitory or false pellitory of Spain.  [Ooh, those sneaky Spaniards - eds.]  The other (Achillea ptarmica) is wild pellitory, bastard pellitory or sneezewort.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Harry Coleman:

What is the origin and spelling of the word loagy?  I assume it means something like "spacey" but it seems an old word.  Perhaps it is obsolete now. I know I haven't seen it for a long time.

Melanie never heard this word growing up in Texas, and Mike certainly never heard it ever in Britain.  It was one of Melanie's Midwestern (U.S.) acquaintances who introduced her to logy.  That's quite interesting, for the word has been around since at least the mid-19th century, at least in the U.S.  Bartlett recorded it in his Dictionary of Americanisms and defined it as "heavy, slow, stupid".  Strangely, the meaning Melanie understood from her acquaintance was, "lethargic" or "having a feeling of slowness or heaviness" as in "I'm so logy today".  Whatever the word's meaning, it was not completely unknown in Britain.  Rudyard Kipling used it in Captains Courageous: "'He's a logy.  Give him room accordin' to his strength', cried Dan.  The meaning there, by the way, was one of "a heavy fish".

It is suggested that the word might be related to Dutch log "heavy, dull" and Middle Low German luggich "sleepy, sluggish", but that's about all anyone seems to know about this word's derivation.  It first appears in writing in English (U.S.) in 1848.  One source suggests that it could be a variant of British English loggy "sluggish in movement".

Read about other words in our bookstore.

From David:

What is the etymology of sublime?

That's quite a lintel!Ah, the meal we ate last night was sublime.  Etymologically, that means it was at lintel-level.  You didn't know we ate dinner at such a height, did you?  Well, that's the metaphorical meaning behind sublime "lofty, high [as a lintel]".  You know what a lintel is - it's the top piece of a doorway.  In some buildings that is quite high.  Anything that is sublime, therefore, is set on high.  Sub- in this case means "up to" instead of simply "under", and limen is Latin for "lintel".  The Romance languages also have the word sublime, spelled just like we spell it, but of course pronounced a bit differently.  The word is first recorded in English in 1604, but it was not used figuratively (the only sense in which it survives today) until 1646, when Browne wrote in his Pseudoepigraphia "Not to gape, or look upward with the eye, but to have his thought sublime".

Sublimation, that word we all know from high school chemistry, is of course basically the same word.  The meaning here is one of "that which is extracted rising to the sublime part of the vessel", for sublimation is the changing of a solid directly to a gas.  And we all (especially those of you living on the top floor of a building) know that a hot gas will rise.

Then there's the psychoanalytical subliminal (roughly synonymous with subconscious).  Here the sub- does indeed mean "under", for it is a direct translation of German unter der schwelle des bewusstseins or "below the threshold of consciousness".  That word was coined in the 1880s, when the field of psychology was blossoming in Germany, Austria and elsewhere.

Latin limen is also a relative of limes "boundary", the source of English limit.

From Jennifer Wotring:

I've always wondered what the importance of clapping was.  Why do people associate clapping with praise?  Where and when did the word clap originate?

Any relation to Ernest Wotring? 

The verb form of this word comes from Middle English clappen, which is thought to have been re-borrowed from Old Norse, the Old English form having been lost.  There are Germanic cognates having the same senses of meaning as in English: Middle Low German, Middle Dutch, Low German and Dutch klappen.  This suggests an Old Teutonic root klappojan, with a meaning "make a clap or explosive sound".  Ultimately it is thought to be onomatopoeic in origin.

The word's earliest meaning in English was "to strike with sounding blows", as in this quotation from Havelok the Dane of about 1300: "[He] clapte him on the crune, So that he standed fel thor dune."  The notion of striking one's hands together to make a sound did not arise until the late 14th century, at least in print, when Chaucer wrote "Whan this Maister..Saugh it was tyme he clapte hise handes" in The Franklin's Tale.  Along these same lines arose the word clapper, referring to the tongue of a bell which strikes the inside of the bell and makes the characteristic bell sound.  That word dates from the late 14th century.

For those of you wondering where the clap, another term for gonorrhea, came from, no one knows for certain.  It dates from the late 16th century, though the verb to clap "to infect with gonorrhea" surfaced a bit earlier.  One source suggests that the verb derives from "to clap one's hands on," but that does seem a bit tenuous.  A better possible explanation is that it comes from Old French clapoir "venereal bubo".  So what the heck is a bubo?  It's a swelling or boil, especially in the groin.  Eeew!

Oh, and let us not forget some history of clapping used for applause.  Clapping the hands together, usually once, has been a gesture of delight or encouragement since at least Chaucer's time.  When people began gathering together to watch performances in public, it was only natural that they would wish to express their delight (or disappointment) in the performances, and with large audiences the requirement arose for some form of fairly loud expression.  Clapping, something that anyone with two hands can do, was quickly adopted.  In 1669 we have a reference to such applause in Samuel Pepys diary: "Indeed it was very finely sung, so as to make the whole house clap her."

It other cultures, clapping does not necessarily show approval.  In Tibet, for instance, one claps to dispel evil spirits.

From Sam Smith:

I was wondering about the term honky's origins.

D.S. DeLoach

I am trying to determine the origin of the word honky and what led to its use.

So why is a white man a honky?  If you were to say "That honky sure is hunky", you wouldn't be far from one possible explanation of this word's etymology.  Several sources suggest that it is a corruption of hunky.  That term derives ultimately from Bohunk, a slang term for Eastern Europeans, derived from Bo[hemian] + Hung[arian].  Today hunky means "handsome", but it was originally a disparaging term, which African-Americans could easily have picked up and corrupted to honky.  Another source, perhaps a bit less reliable with American slang, suggests that it comes from honker "large nose". 

Honky tonk is not thought to be related but instead to be a rhyming form of honk "sound a horn" or a corruption of the northwestern England dialectical term honk "to idle about".

From Karen:

I used the word crestfallen the other day during normal conversation.  The other party chuckled and said, "Crestfallen.  What a great word.  I wonder where it came from."  I know what it means but I truly have no idea where it comes from.  Can you help.

This may look like an odd word, but if you analyze its elements carefully, it makes a bit more sense.He's not crestfallen -- at the  moment, anyhow.  Imagine a crested animal, like a normally proud rooster, whose crest is drooping.  A once alert, perhaps even threatening animal suddenly looks downcast or lacking in confidence (to anthropomorphize just a bit).  That is the notion behind crestfallen.  It arose in the late 16th century: "O how meager and leane hee lookt., so creast falne, that his combe hung downe to his bill".  Even that first recorded use of the word refers to a bird.  A few years later Shakespeare used it in Henry VI Part II: "Let it make thee crest-fallen, I, and allay this thy abortive Pride."

Crest derives ultimately from Latin crista "tuft, plume".  The Indo-European root is sker- "to turn, bend", referring to the manner in which an animal's crest usually grows or lies in a curved shape.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Resident curmudgeon Barb Dwyer speaks clearly against mispronunciation.

I rarely care one way or another how someone pronounces their words.  Intelligibility is my sole criterion.  Just recently, though, a mangled pronunciation punctured my insouciance.  I found myself making an exception to my rule for the plural of process.  Take your average Joe, your "man on the Clapham omnibus", your common working stiff... they all manage to pronounce processes naturally, effortlessly and (assuming they say it as I do) correctly.  It is the educated folk who make a pig's ear out of this word.

This week I heard a professor, no less, pronounce processes as process-ease.  Not once, not twice but several times.  An otherwise educated man, he has obviously been deluded into thinking that this was correct.  No doubt, its pronunciation has been influenced in his mind by such words as basis (plural bases, pronounced base-ease), thesis (plural theses, pronounced theace-ease) and parenthesis (plural parentheses, pronounced parenthess-ease).  All those words end in -is, though.  

Wait a moment, could it just be that those who say process-ease simply can't spell?

Sez You...

From Susan Clarke:

As a longtime student of linguistics, I look forward to your newsletter each week. I had to chuckle about the first item in your "Reasons why the English language is so hard to learn" [Laughing Stock, Issue 90].  I recently saw a sign in a sewing machine shop offering to sell "prewounded bobbins." I tried to explain to the clerk what was funny, but he just looked confused.

And wounded?  Perhaps you hurt his feelings.

From Ian Rowlands:

On the label of promotional bottles of Brut cologne: "Not to be taken internally, may lead to violent intercourse".

By which they, presumably, meant very loud conversations with lots of arm-waving.

From Steve Parkes:

Deadly nightshade is also known as belladonna, as I'm sure you know.  I recall from The Cloister and the Hearth (I've forgotten the author's name, to my shame) that Italian ladies used it to dilate the pupils to make themselves look more attractive (for "attractive" read "sexy"). Pupil size and sexiness was the subject of scientific research a few years ago - a few hundred years after the Italians discovered it! 

I read somewhere that the name love apple for the tomato comes from a mistranslation of pomme da Moor (Moorish apple - excuse the misspelling!) as "pomme d'amour". Wouldn't life be dull without such mistakes! 

Finally, on the subject of my favourite vegetable (not!) I eventually realised that "cole" = "kale": it all depends how far north or south in Britain you are. 

Keep up the excellent work!

That is certainly correct about belladonna, Steve, but I think we'd need verification before we'd spread the pomme da Moor story.  How do the Moors come into this, anyway?
From Chuck Miller:

If I might add one to the list of doctors with logical names, in San Angelo, TX, at the Shannon Medical Center, there is a urologist named "Dr. Flood".  My 93 year old father went to him one time and couldn't stop laughing during the entire visit.

Laughing Stock

George W. Bush, in his own words

(is Dan Quayle his speech writer?)


"How do you know if you don't measure if you have a  system that simply suckles kids through?"

 - Explaining the need for educational accountability in Beaufort, S.C., Feb. 16, 2000.


"Will the highways on the Internet become more few?"

- Concord, N.H., Jan. 29, 2000.


"This is Preservation Month. I appreciate preservation.  It's what you do when you run for  president. You gotta preserve."

- Speaking during "Perseverance Month" at Fairgrounds Elementary School in Nashua, N.H. As quoted in Los Angeles Times, Jan. 28, 2000.


"I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family." 

- Greater Nashua, N.H., Chamber of Commerce, Jan. 27, 2000.


"What I am against is quotas. I am against hard quotas, quotas they basically delineate based upon whatever. However they delineate. Quotas, I think, vulcanize society. So, I don't know how that fits into what everybody else is saying, their relative positions, but that's my position."

- Quoted by Molly Ivins, San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 21, 2000 (Thanks to Toni L. Gould).


"When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were. It was us vs. them, and it was clear who them was. Today, we are not so sure who the they are, but we know they're there."

- Iowa Western Community College, Jan. 21, 2000.


"The administration I'll bring is a group of men and women who are focused on what's best for America, honest men and women, decent men and women, women who will not stain the House."

- Des Moines Register debate, Iowa, Jan. 15, 2000


"This is still a dangerous world. It's a world of madmen and uncertainty and potential mental losses."

- At a South Carolina oyster roast, as quoted in the Financial Times, Jan. 14, 2000


"Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?"

- Florence, S.C., Jan. 11, 2000


"There needs to be debates, like we're going through.  There needs to be town-hall meetings. There needs to be travel. This is a huge country."

- Larry King Live, Dec. 16, 1999


"The important question is, How many hands have I shaked?"

- Answering a question about why he hasn't spent more time in New Hampshire, in The New York Times, Oct. 23, 1999


"It was just inebriating what Midland was all about then."

- From a 1994 interview, as quoted in First Son by Bill Minutaglio

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