Salaries, dragons, and musk: rooting around in the spice rack
As the Bard said, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold” a pumpkin-spice latte–or beer, bubble gum, even burgers, such is the market. While we may have reached so-called “peak pumpkin” this year, the autumn season is indeed one of seasonings, of herbs and spices with the special power to evoke that cozy sense of home. From trade routes to paychecks and even male anatomy, it turns out the spice rack is much more interesting than you may think, etymologically speaking.
When speaking of spices, it’s first important we specify which “kind.” Spice is from the Latin species, meaning a “type” (of something) and yielding words like specific, specimen, special, and yes, species. Earlier in Latin, species was an “outward appearance,” connected to the root *spek-, “to see,” according to the Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. (The asterisk means the root is reconstructed, not directly evidenced.) See also speculate or perspective.
Spices, of course, were historically very significant, traded by great empires of antiquity for millennia along extensive spice routes stretching from Eastern Asia to Western Europe, from the Old World to the New World. The history is preserved in the origins of the words pepper, cumin, cinnamon, saffron, and nutmeg, particularly prized for their medicinal value when they reached English largely during the Middle Ages.
Pepper is also behind paprika, a Hungarian diminutive of the Latin piper. As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) observes, the Ottoman Turks ultimately acquired the spice from the Spanish Empire and produced it in what is now the Budapest area in the 1530s. The Spanish brought the source plant back from the Americas.
As the OED notes, cumin (attested in the 9th century), saffron, and cinnamon all traveled similar linguistic and commercial routes from the Middle East. Cumin has ancient cousins in the Arabic kammûn and Hebrew kammôn. Saffron is still vivid in the Arabic za’faran. As for cinnamon, Hebrew has qinnamon.
Nutmeg gets nutty when cracked open. The word is attested in English around 1387, the OED records, passing from the French via Latin nux and muscus. The former gives us nut and nuclear. The latter, musk, is either from or akin to the Sanskrit muska, referring, to, well, testicles, which the nut apparently resembled.
Speaking of nuts, clove, too, is a key spice of antiquity. Not to be confused with a clove of garlic, this clove is from the French clou du girofle, or “nail of gillyflower.” The gillyflower, it turns out, is from Greek words for “nut leaf.”
Dried herbs also make their homes in our spice racks. While the origin of spice words records ancient commerce, the etymology of garden-variety herbs features some secret ingredients.
Rosemary originally had nothing with rose or the name Mary, although was altered in sound and sense because of them. This Mediterranean herb is from the Latin compound rosmarinus, “dew of the sea,” liking to grow on the coasts.
Like clove, tarragon emphasizes appearances and, again, we have Greek in the kitchen. Here, it is drakon, connected to the English dragon, from the Proto-Indo-European *derk- (“to see,” as the Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European glosses it). Stare all you want at tarragon, but avoid the dragon’s gaze.
Perhaps, though, what is missing from this discussion is a little salt. Language did not mess with a good thing here: Salt was sealt in Old English (attested as early as 1000, though much older) and generously sprinkled across the Indo-European languages. In Latin, this most valuable of historic preservatives was sal, behind salarium, “originally money allowed to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt, hence, their pay,” according to the OED. Hence, English’s salary.
“Peak pumpkin” or not, yesterday’s salt may be today’s pumpkin spice, if etymology has anything to teach us about how commerce, cultural contact, and creativity can change–and endure in–language.