Issue 134, page 1
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There we were, sniffing the blooms and watering the flowers, when we realized that we were casting aspersions on our nasturtiums. Literally, an aspersion is a "sprinkling upon". Until 1600, to asperse simply meant "to sprinkle" (from Latin ad- "to, at" + spargere "to sprinkle") but during the 17th century it acquired the metaphorical meaning of "to bespatter [with damaging remarks]".
Anyone who has nibbled a nasturtium leaf will attest to its hot, peppery taste. The ancient Roman author Pliny is often quoted as stating that its spiciness gave nasturtium its name of "nose twister" (Latin nas- "nose" + tor[que]mentum "twisted"). Amusing as this may be, the common garden nasturtium is a South American flower (of the genus Tropaeolum) which was entirely unknown to the ancient Romans. The plant which distorted Pliny's proboscis was water-cress, another pungent herb, which is called Nasturtium officinale by botanists. Cress is related to the cresc- in crescent and crescendo, both of which imply "growing", as cress is a very fast-growing plant.
Officinale (or officinalis) is often seen as part of an herb's botanical name. For instance, there's Angelica (Archangelica officinalis), ginger (Zingiber officinale), the Great or Common Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis) and the marsh-mallow (Althea officinalis). The literal meaning of the Latin officinalis is "shop", as in "workshop" or "factory". In the case of herbs, officinalis (or officinale) indicates an apothecary's shop and that these herbs were once used medicinally. The Latin name of Common Burnet (Sanguisorba) tells us that this plant was used to absorb blood from a wound. Comfrey (also called woundwort) was also considered good for wounds and, as one would expect, it is another apothecary herb: Symphytum officinale.
It may surprise some to see that marsh-mallow occurs naturally and is not that unholy amalgam of nutrasweet and styrofoam without which no camp-fire would be complete. In fact, it is a species of mallow plant which grows near salt marshes. This marsh-mallow has mauve flowers but this should not surprise us as mauve means (in French) "the color of a mallow flower" (from the Latin malva "mallow").
Just a few issues ago, we mentioned rose-noble as the name of a medieval English coin. Well, in addition to meaning "a noble with a rose on it" it also meant "a noble flower", specifically, the Hound's Tongue (Cynoglossum officinale) or the Figwort (Scrophularia nodosa). The broad leaves of Cynoglossum (Greek, cyno- "dog"+ glossum "tongue") do, indeed look like dogs' tongues but there is nothing about the Figwort which looks like a fig. Or is there? Fig was once the common word for hemorrhoids, which the bulbous, purplish-brown flowers of the Figwort were thought to resemble.
Suddenly, sniffing the blooms has lost a lot of its charm.
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