Wednesday, June 02, 2004
Nifty etymology of the day
Words, words, words: I absolutely love words. And etymologies, the odder and more circuitous the better, and ancient and/or dead languages. Here's an etymology I'm really loving:
I'm doing electronic conversion of a Bible dictionary/concordance, and I've been amusing myself by seeing whether various things I'm interested in are mentioned in the Bible: gemstones, herbs, birds, and so forth. One thing J. and I have been paying a lot of attention to is salt, since he's on a practically-no-sodium diet, so I looked it up. In Hebrew (Biblical Hebrew; I don't know how that corresponds to modern Hebrew), "salt" is melaḥ (if your browser doesn't like Unicode, there's a dot under the "h," meaning it's pronounced like the "ch" in German; if your browser really likes Unicode, the actual Hebrew is מֶלַח). I looked at some of the other words near it in the dictionary, and found mallûaḥ, an edible herb that grows in salt marshes: in other words, a mallow. The very plant that gives its name to the candy made from it, and the similar candy that's now artificially produced: marshmallow. Yikes. (I don't know if the mallow you find in the ancient Near East is the same one you find in the U.S. East Coast salt marshes; but the basic etymology would be the same. There are plenty of American plants and animals that have nothing to do with the Old World species that homesick Europeans named them after.)
Boy, when I get parenthetical, I really obscure the basic substance I'm trying to get across...
Anyway. Is that cool, or what? The things we melt on s'mores and float on hot chocolate, the sugar-covered chicks and rabbits we put in Easter baskets, the punchline of the biggest joke in frickin' Ghostbusters, have a name that goes all the way back to the ancient Near East, to the plant Job speaks of the destitute eating (Job 30:4), whose name comes from the same thing that seasoned the grain offerings to the Lord (Leviticus 2:13) and that Abimelech sowed the conquered city of Shechem with (Judges 9:45) and that Lot's wife turned into a pillar of (Genesis 19:26).
(Incidentally, if you want to see what a marsh mallow plant looks like, the Connecticut Botanical Society has a nice picture. Recipes for actual marsh mallow marshmallows are few and far between; this one from Dian Dincin Buchman's "Herbal Medicine," which made its way online via alt.folklore.herbs, is the most detailed one I could find.)
[ at 1:04 PM • by Abby • permalink • ]