The American edition of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, co-authored by Steve at LanguageHat, still isn't available, as far as I know. But being impatient, I went ahead and got the UK edition when I found a copy here in the States, even though it lacks LH's preface.
A relevant topic within the scope of this blog takes a little bit of a stretch.
Theophrastus has this to say about cumin:
Πάντα δὲ πολύκαρπα καὶ πολυβλαστῆ, πολυκαρπότατον δὲ τὸ κύμινον. ἴδιον δὲ καὶ ὂ λέγουσι κατὰ τούτο· φασὶ γὰρ δεῖν καταρᾶσθαί τε καὶ βλασφημεῖν σπείροντας, εἰ μέλλει καλὸν ἔσεσθαι καὶ πολύ. (HP, vii 3 3)
All have numerous fruits and numerous shoots, but cummin has the most fruits of all. And there is another peculiarity told of this plant: they say that one must curse and abuse it, while sowing, if the crop is to be fair and abundant. (tr. Hort)
Pliny says much the same thing about basil:
nihil ocimo fecundius. cum maledictis ac probris serendum praecipiunt, ut laetius proveniat; sato pavitur terra. [et cuminum qui serunt,] precantur ne exeat. (NH, xix 36 = 7)
There is no seed more prolific than that of ocimum [basil]; it is generally recommended to sow it with the utterance of curses and imprecations, the result being that it grows all the better for it; the earth, too, is rammed down when it is sown, and [when cumin is sown] prayers offered that the seed may never come up. (tr. after Bostock and Riley; some codices associate the last sentence with cumin, others do not)
Cumin is native from the Eastern Mediterranean to India and was cultivated in ancient times. The scientific name, Cuminum cyminum, is as close to a tautonym as the rules for plants allow. The Semitic name occurs in Akkadian as kamûnu (written 𒌑𒁷𒌁𒊬 u2gamunsar), the כַּמֹּן kammon of Isaiah 28:27.
Another source of various names for cumin shows up as, for instance, जीर jīra. Both the Wikipedia and this fun book of Persian proverbs mention ریره به کرمان میبرد zire be kermān mibarad 'carry cumin to Kerman', that is, coals to Newcastle.
Basil, Ocimum basilicum, though now considered the essential herb of Southern Italian cuisine, actually is native to India. It is the βασιλικόν 'royal' plant.
Plutarch also mentions the belief about sowing cumin:
Ἀλλ᾽ ἐὰν τοῦτ᾽, ἔφη, ζητῇς, ὁ Εὐθύδημος αὐτίκα δεήσει σε καὶ περὶ τοῦ σελίνου καὶ περὶ τοῦ κυμίνου διδόναι λόγον, ὥν τὸ μὲν ἐν τῷ βλαστάνειν καταπατοῦντες καὶ συντρίβοντες οἴονται βέλτιον αὐξάνεσθαι, τὸ δὲ καταρώμενοι σπείροισι καὶ λοιδοροῦντες. (Quaestiones Convivales, vii 2 3)
But if you have a mind to such questions, Euthydemus will presently desire you to give an account of smallage and cummin; one of the which, if trodden down as it springs, will grow the better, and the other men curse and blaspheme whilst they sow it. (tr. T. C.)
But Palladius applies it to rue:
Hoc mense ruta seritur ... Prosequuntur etiam maledictis et maxime in terra soluti lateris ponunt, quod prodesse certissimum est. (De Re Rustica, iv 9)
Is this month rue is sown ... They also attack it with curses and especially they put it in earth with loose brick, which is certain to be beneficial.
These superstitions could not escape the notice of the great students of mythology. So, Grimm cites Pliny in a section on curses (Deutsche Mythologie, xxxviii; translation). On the spectrum of “may God damn he who ...” to “damn you“ to the interjection Damn! to the intensive “the whole damn ...,” Grimm tends more toward the apotropaic and Uglier than a Monkey's Armpit toward the insulting, though its section on “Ancient Languages” does explain the earlier world, followed by a taste of Latin, Greek and Early English. In any case, it is not always possible to draw a neat line between senses of curse, and both reveal something about the culture that uses them. For instance, Grimm has this Old Norse curse from the Poetic Edda:
nio röstom er þû skyldir neðar vera,
ok vaxi þer â baðmi barr! (Helgaviða Hjörvarðssonar, 16)
Nine miles deeper | down mayst thou sink,
And a tree grow tall on thy bosom. (tr. Bellows)
Sô Gelboê der berc von allen touwen verteilet ist, der vluoch dir haften müeze! (Minnesinger Handschriften, vol. 3, p. 53)
As Mount Gilboa is condemned of all dew, may that curse stick to you!
The allusion is to David's curse against Mount Gilboa in 2 Samuel 1:21, הָרֵי בַגִּלְבֹּעַ אַל־טַל וְאַל־מָטָר עֲלֵיכֶם hare baggilboa‘ al-ṭal wal-maṭar ‘aleḵem 'Ye mountains of Gilboa, [let there be] no dew, neither [let there be] rain, upon you'. A similar curse against the land is invoked by Danel in the Ugaritic tablet KTU 1.19:I:44: 𐎁𐎍𐎟𐎉𐎍𐎟𐎁𐎍𐎗𐎁𐎁 balû ṭalli balû rabibi 'no dew, no rain'. (Transliteration, translation and more discussion here; Wyatt's translation and notes here.)
Getting back to planting herbs, Frazer notices Theophrastus, Plutarch, Pliny and Palladius in a digression on the “Beneficial effect of curses and abuse” in a chapter on magical control of the rain (The Golden Bough : Part 1, The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings, i 281). He relates them to later and distant customs, none of which, though, involve growing vegetables.
Erasmus, in the entry in his Adages, s.v. cumini sector 'cumin-splitter' for one who is very parsimonious, cites Plutarch and sees the superstition as confirmation that this is a negative characterization:
... quod olim ſerebatur a male precantibus, auctore Plutarcho, atque ita felicius provenire creditum eſt. Quo magis quadrat in hos huiuſmodi convicium, qui ob parcimoniam male audiunt. (p. 443)
According to Plutarch, those who planted this would curse it as they sowed, and this was supposed to improve the germination. This fact makes this type of uncomplimentary saying more appropriate for notorious skinflints. (tr. Mynors)
Theophraſtus mentions an experiment that is very ſtrange, whereby to make Cumin grow flouriſhingly, and that is curſing and banning of the ſeeds when you ſow them; and Pliny reporteth the ſame out of Theophraſtus. And he reporteth it likewiſe of Baſile, that it will grow more plentifully and better, if it be ſowed with curſing and banning. (Book 3, Chap. XIX of the 1658 English translation: text, EEBO; only earlier shorter editions of the Latin appear to be online)
I suspect that it is also covered by some of the great herbals, though a quick check does not turn up any references. One reason for this is that they, like Dioscorides (III, 59) concentrate more on the magic effects of the herbs themselves than on growing them.
By the same token, it is in Conrad Heresbach's Rei rusticae:
Cuminum, Coriandrum terram poſtulant bene ſubactam cui letamen admiſceatur, ſeruntur verna ſatione, ſata herbis purgeantur. Cumin κύμινον et Graecis alijſque linguis pleriſque vocatum. Maledictis ſeri creditum vt copioſius exeat, & qui ſerunt precentur vt exeat. (Lib. II, p. 102)
Cummin and Corriander require well ordered ground, they are ſowed in the Spring, and muſt be wel weeded. Cummin is called in Greeke κυμινον, in Latine Cuminum, and almoſt like in all other languages: it is ſowed beſt (as they thinke) with curfyng and execration, that it may proſper the better. (tr. Googe in EEBO)
The French idiom semer le basilic, literally 'to sow basil', apparently means 'to rant and rave'. I only qualify this somewhat because I have never seen it actually used in literature (or cinema), only indirectly reported in works on herbs or plant lore, such as Angelo de Gubernatis's La mythologie des plantes or the Herbalpedia.
A look through 17th century English works finds a number of interrelated similes about sowing cumin and hempseed and/with curses, whose exact sequence of development, if it is more than coincidence, is not entirely clear to me:
- One of the Characters added to Thomas Overbury's poem “The Wife,” probably by John Webster, in the 1616 edition, is:
- Thomas Adams The Good Politician Directed (before 1653):
What ſhall become of the oppreſſor? No creature in heauen or earth ſhall teſtifie his innocency. But the ſighes, cryes, and grones of vndone parents, of beggard widdowes and Orphanes ſhall witneſſe the contrary. All his money, like Hempe-ſeede, is ſowed with curſes: and euery obligation is written on earth with inke and blood, and in hell with blood and fire. (Works, p. 838, EEBO)
- Nathaniel Hardy, Justice triumphing, or, The spoylers spoyled (1648):
He ſoweth curſes like hempſeed to make an halter for himſelfe, and all ſuch ſooner or later ſhall have cauſe to ſay — propriis configimur armis, our armes are our harmes, and our own conceptions the death of their parents. (EEBO)
- Henry Bold, Wit a sporting in a pleasant grove of new fancies (1657):
He puts forth Money, as the Hangman ſowes,
His fatal Hemp-ſeed, that with curſes growes,
So growes his damn'd wealth in the Devils name,
That doth in hel the Harveſt home proclaim,
For which deep reaſon my poor Muſe preferrrs
This ſute, that Poets nere prove Vſurers. (EEBO)
What kind of curses are appropriate? A suggestion is given by Edgar MacCulloch's Guernsey Folk Lore (1903; no preview in Google Books, but complete in the Internet Archive):
In planting a bed of smaller herbs, to render them thoroughly efficacious they should be planted under a volley of minor oaths, such as “goderabetin” or “godzamin.” It is not expedient that the oaths should be too blood curdling. (p. 425)
I can only find those particular words, which show every sign of being euphemisms for something like “god damn it,” in two other books associated with Guernsey (the second one of which seems, in the snippet available, to be relating just this superstition). The source MacCulloch cites for this is George Métivier, apparently his unfinished (and unpublished?) Souvenirs Historiques de Guernesey et des autres îles de la Manche, but possibly Dictionnaire franco-normand, which has not been scanned yet that I can find. (See preface to Poësies guernesiaises et françaises, which is in Google Books).
It is not surprising that this same idea is applied by other cultures, and in other languages, to different plants. For instance, Marín's Más de 21,000 Refranes Castellanos contains similar southern Spanish proverbs about garlic:
El ajar, en días nones, y sembrarlo con maldiciones.
He oído aludir más de una vez a esta vulgar creencia, y sé que la practican algunos hortelanos andaluces. A cada diente de ajo que entierran, sueltan un periquito o un reniego, como si estuviesen muy enfadados contra los ajos, y en eso fían la suerte del ajar. (p. 144)
The garlic patch, on odd days, and sow it with curses.
I have heard this common belief alluded to more than once, and I know that some Andalusian growers practice it. Each clove of garlic that they bury, they let go a swear-word ('parakeet') or a curse, as if they were very angry against the garlic, and in that ensure the fortune of the garlic patch.
Para que salgan buenos tus ajos, con maldiciones has de sembrarlos.
Ya queda atrás en otra forma: “Los ajos mejores se siembran con maldiciones.” (p. 361)
For your garlic to come out well, you should plant them with curses.
Now left behind in another way: “The best garlic are planted with curses.”
If you know of any more, particularly outside Europe, please leave a comment.