Issue 199, page 1

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Herbs and Spices

We have already delved into pepper-related words (Issue 144).  However, there are some very interesting names for herbs and spices and it's high time we looked into them.

The spice that got us started thinking about this topic is nutmeg.   We see the nut part, but what about -meg?  Is this spice ultimately "Margaret's nut"?  Those of you who laughed out loud at that, move to the front of the class.  The rest of you read on.  English borrowed the word, via the hypothetical Anglo French *nois mugue, from Old French nois muguede "musk nut", so named because of its scent.  It first turns up in Middle English (14th century) as notemugge - English-speakers translated nois to nut but didn't quite know what to do with mugue and so left it pretty much as it was, though its meaning was lost.  By 1542 it was nutmeges, and it did not take very long thereafter for the second e to disappear and give us the modern form.

Nutmeg sometimes makes us think of cinnamon.  However, what you think of as cinnamon and what we think of as cinnamon may be quite different.  The OED tells us that the bark of the tree called Cinnamomum zeylanicum is the source of the spice cinnamon.  However, other spices made from tree bark go by the name cinnamon, as well.  In the United States, what we call cinnamon comes from the bark of the cassia tree, Cinnamomum cassia, which the OED calls "thicker, coarser, less delicate in flavor, and cheaper than the true cinnamon." Shocking, yes?  Perhaps, but cassia has been sold as cinnamon in the U.S. for quite some time.  How can one tell the difference between cinnamon and cassia?  Well, one way is to chew a piece of cinnamon gum.  Most brands contain a flavoring, whether natural or artificial, that is closer in taste to cinnamon than to cassia.  Another way to tell the difference is to buy, in an American store, stick cinnamon, and then go into a Latin American store and purchase canela.  What the Latinos call canela is Cinnamomum zeylanicum.  It is crumbly and soft, unlike cassia, which is hard and does not crumble at all.

Okay, we understand the fine distinction between what the OED refers to as bastard cinnamon (cassia) and true cinnamon, but what about the etymology of cinnamon?  English took it from French cinnamome, which derives from Latin cinnamomum.  The Romans got it from Greek kinnamomon, and the Greeks got it from (some of our Jewish readers will love this) Hebrew qinnamon!  It first turned up in English in the early 15th century.  The Romance languages latched onto Latin canella "little cane" for the spice, referring to what we call quills, or the rolled pieces of cinnamon bark.  And what of cassia?  It also derives from Hebrew: qatsa- "to cut off, strip off bark".

Well, it's about thyme that we speak of an herb, as promised in the title of this piece.  Thyme entered English in the 14th century from Latin thymum, which derived from Greek thumon / thumos, from thuein "to burn sacrifice", according to  Mark Morton, in Cupboard Love (second revised edition - see our book store).  Morton tells us that the herb was burnt as an offering to the gods by the ancient Greeks.  He goes on to say that thumos is cognate with English fume and perfume, and that thumos meant "breath" or "spirit".  While Indo-European guru Calvert Watkins says that thumos means "soul" or "spirit", he indicates that thyme's Greek parent meant "plant having a strong smell".  He tells us that the Indo-European root at work here is*dheu- "to rise in a cloud".  Some other words that derive from that root are, indeed, fume and perfume.

So what is the difference between "herb" and "spice"?  The OED says that herb is "applied to plants of which the leaves, or stem and leaves, are used for food or medicine, or in some way for their scent or flavour."  It came to English in the 13th century from Latin herba "grass, green crops, herbage, herb" via Old French erbe. On the other hand, spice is "one or other of various strongly flavoured or aromatic substances of vegetable origin, obtained from tropical plants, commonly used as condiments or employment for other purposes on account of their fragrance and preservative qualities". We hope that's cleared up any confusion for you.

Spice came to English from French in the 13th century, the Old French espice having derived from Latin species.  This isn't so surprising when one realizes that species means "appearance, form, kind, etc.", or even "type, variety" (from Latin specere "to look").  Thus, spice means, etymologically, "multiple types".  It is true that, today, there are many types of spices available from all over the world but that was not always true.  Europeans did not have much at hand with which to flavor food before the Crusades.  However, during the Crusades, which began in the 11th century, Europeans traveled to the Middle East in an attempt to win Jerusalem back from the Moslems.  While there, the Europeans encountered many new and wonderful seasonings.  Because there were suddenly so many of them,  at least compared to what the Europeans had had before the Crusades, they came to be known as the things of which there were "many varieties". 

The word species did come back to English, in its original Latin form, to refer etymologically to the diversity of life on Earth, in the early 17th century, when Europeans were cataloguing all the wondrous and bizarre animals and plants they were encountering in their explorations across the globe.

We must now depart to undertake some flavorful explorations in the kitchen - it's dinner time!

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