Saturday, March 24, 2007


Garlic is such an important food that it has already come up a couple of times here: as a later definition of the magic μῶλυ and a major ingredient in Tương Ớt Tỏi Việt-Nam. So while enjoying the σκορδαλιά at a recently relocated Greek restaurant I thought it deserved a post of its own. Perhaps even the first of several.

Allium is the genus for a number of plants, including chives, garlic, leeks, onions, scallions, shallots and some ornamental varieties. The Etymology section of Gernot Katzer's Spice Page is fantastically detailed. So this post will not duplicate all the information there (or in the M.M.P.N.D.), but add a few bits and pieces and venture a little further afield.

Read More

Garlic is a solidly native English word. From Middle English garlek. Chaucer says of the summoner, “Wel loved he garleek, oynons, and eek lekes,” a spiritual failing that aggravates his physical problems. From Old English gárléac 'spear leek', because of the shape of the leaves. Gare is an obsolete word for spear, but actually one learns early on that gár is 'spear' in Old English. Not necessarily because the speakers were so bellicose, but because of the first line of Beowulf:

Hwæt! We Gár-Dena, in geárdagum, þeódcyninga þrym gefrunon
Lo! We have heard of the renown of the Spear-Danes' great kings in days of yore

The leek part — whence the Finnegans Wake pun, “I knew I smelt the garlic leek!” — occurs throughout the Germanic languages, for instance German Lauch. In Swedish, lök is 'onion' and 'garlic' is vitlök 'white onion' and similarly in some other Scandinavian languages, even Finnish valkosipuli (valkea 'white' + sipuli 'onion'). As will become apparent, this is a very common idea all over the world. A Germanic luk is borrowed into Russian лук 'onion' and Serbian further calques 'white' for бели лук beli luk 'garlic'. On the other hand, Old Norse has geirlaukr (Icelandic geirlaukur), perhaps influenced by the Old English. The simile that Gernot quotes from the Poetic Edda:

Svá var Sigurðr    of sonum Gjúka,
sem væri grœnn laukr    ór grasi vaxinn, (Gðr II 2)
So was Sigurd above the sons of Giuki
like a green leek grown up out of the grass,
has an even more garlicky form there:
Svá var minn Sigurðr    hjá sonum Gjúka,
sem væri geirlaukr    ór grasi vaxinn, (Gðr I 18)
So was Sigurd among the sons of Giuki,
like garlic grown up out of the grass,
Evidently in some German dialects Grusrich 'grass-ruler' is 'garlic' (in others that is 'chives').

A piece of garlic is a clove, which also goes back to Old English clufu (garleaces iii clufe 'three cloves of garlic'), closely related to clove the past tense of cleave. (These are ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *gleubh-. They are not related to clove the spice from French clou from Latin clāvus 'nail' from *klēu-. That's what happens when one path follows Grimm's Law and another skips it.) The same root gives German Knoblauch and Dutch knoflook. Dissimilation has changed the consonant, leading to folk etymologies have to do with knoten 'knot' or Knopf 'knob' or again Finnegans Wake, “I fed her … italics of knobby lauch and … shains of garleeks.” But the source is Middle High German klobelouch from Old High German chlobalouh. A similar idea of dividing gives Russian чеснок, from the same root as чесать 'comb'.

Afrikaans shortens to knoffel and Yiddish to קנאָבל knobel. A Yiddish proverb:

אַז מע עסט ניט קיין קנאָבל שטינקט מען ניט.
Az me esst nit kein knobel stinkt men nit.
If you don't eat garlic, you won't smell bad.

Modern Welsh and Gaelic have garlleg and gairleog, but there are older craf and creamh, from a Proto-Indo-European root *kermus which gives Greek κρόμμυον 'onion', Old English hramse, Modern English ramsons, and Lithuanian kermuše 'wild garlic', which is probably the original sense.

Cornish kenynen ewynek (kenin euynoc in older orthography) means 'leek with claws', which is also what Estonian küüslauk looks like it might mean. In Breton, kignen alone is 'garlic'. I am not sure what the first half of Latvian ķiploki means.

Latin has allium, which gives the generic name. Various food and nutrition books mention in passing that this word comes from the Celtic word all meaning 'hot' or 'pungent'. I have not found any philological source for this and the oldest reference I can find online is Lady Wilkinson. If this is correct, it presumably shares the root *ēl with Old English ælan 'burn', which survives in Modern English only as the second half of anneal. Allium gives rise in the Romance languages to words that are remarkably simple phonetically, such as French ail. Or Portuguese alho. Vindaloo is from vinho de alho 'garlic wine'. Misturar alhos com bugalhos 'mix garlic with gall-nuts' means to mix up different things; this early 19th century grammar quaintly translates it 'chalk and cheese'. In informal Brazilian Portuguese, bugalho means 'eyeball', so a couple places on the internet explain as 'garlic and eyeballs'.

Horace wrote a satirical poem on the effect of eating garlic on his delicate constitution:

Parentis olim si quis impia manu
  Senile guttur fregerit,
Edit cicutis allium nocentius.
  O dura messorum ilia! (Epodes III)
If any person at any time with an impious hand has broken his aged father's neck, let him eat garlic, more baneful than hemlock.
  Oh! the hardy bowels of the mowers! (tr. Smart)
It is possible that the poem was related to Philodemus’ debate with Heracleodorus in On Poems on whether a good poet should be able to write on unappealing topics such as garlic. Byron also quotes that last line with his translation:
Oh Ye rigid guts of reapers!

In Greek 'garlic' is σκόροδον (Modern Greek σκόρδο); that is what prompted this post. Albanian is hudhër, variant hudhë, from *skurdā, cognate with the Greek. Armenian is սխտոր skhtor.

The Persian word for 'garlic' is سیر sīr. It is one of the Haft sīn  (هفت سین 'Seven S's'), a collection of items whose names start with the letter س S laid out on the table as part of Norouz (نوروز‎), the Iranian New Year, which was earlier this week, around the Vernal Equinox. The third month of the Old Persian calendar, Thāigarci (𐎰𐎠𐎡𐎥𐎼𐎨𐎡𐏁𐏐𐎶𐎠𐏃𐎹𐎠𐏐𐏒𐏒𐏒𐏒𐏑𐏐 Θāigarcaiš māhyā IX 'on the 9th day of Thāigarci' Behistun II.9), is believed to mean 'garlic-gathering [month]', the month on whose 14th day سیرسور sīrsūr 'garlic feast' is celebrated. (Just about a month before Gilroy.) *θigra from an Old Iranian root *sigra. So Balochi sīrk.

The Hebrew שּׁוּמ šûm only occurs in Numbers 11:5:

זָכַרְנוּ אֶת־הַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר־נֹאכַל בְּמִצְרַיִם חִנָּם אֵת הַקִּשֻּׁאִים וְאֵת הָֽאֲבַטִּחִים וְאֶת־הֶחָצִיר וְאֶת־הַבְּצָלִים וְאֶת־הַשּׁוּמִֽים׃
zāḵarənû ’eṯ-haddāgāh ’ăšer-nō’ḵal bəmiṣərayim ḥinnām ’ēṯ haqqiššu’îm wə’ēṯ hā’ăḇaṭṭiḥîm wə’eṯ-heḥāṣîr wə’eṯ-habbəṣālîm wə’eṯ-haššûmîm
We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic.
Which was echoed by Chaucer above. The Talmud (Bava Kama 82), in explaining why we eat garlic on Fridays, says:
חמשה דברים נאמרו בשום משביע ומשחין ומצהיל פנים ומרבה הזרע והורג כנים שבבני מעיים׃
ḥamišāh dəbārîm ne’emaru bəšûm masəbîa‘ wəmeseḥîn wəmeṣəhîl panîm wəmerəbah hezarə‘ wəhārag kināh ben mə‘î
Five things are said of garlic: it is filling, it is rejuvenating, it brightens the face, it increases semen and it kills stomach lice.

Cognate Semitic forms include Arabic ثُوم ṯūm, Maltese tewm, Syriac ܬܘܡܐ tūmā and Ge'ez ሱም sum. Lane gives meanings for ثومة ṯūmah: 'pommel', 'glans', and 'The channel [or oblong depression] between two mustaches, against the partition between the two nostrils'.

In Akkadian, this is šūmū, written with the Sumerian šum character or šumsar with a 'plant' determinative. The Neo-Assyrian form of these characters is . The derived word šum-sikil 'pure garlic' probably means 'onion', though it is possible that it is the other way around and 'garlic' is 'pure onion' (putting Sumerian close to being in the 'white onion' camp), or even that this is plain qualification. The ePSD is hyperlinked to ETCSL, with Sumerian corpus texts of stories about bitter garlic and the underworld, and to CDLI, with hi-res photos and line-drawings of actual tablets (column 3, lines 4 and 5, give quantities of onion bulbs and seeds). Here is an article with a detailed description of Yale tablet NBC 8734. It translates numun šum-sikil gur as 'gur [a measure] of garlic seeds', which seems improbable to me, since garlic, unlike onions, usually isn't propagated by seed. It uses one of the Ur III forms of the šum character, a table of which is scanned on the CDLI wiki (it's number 591, second from the top). Here is šumsar in Unicode: 𒋧𒊬. Download a font for it here (h/t ngögam).

The Hittite word šuppi-wašḫar(SAR) 'holy x plant' is used in a text referring to peeling off layers, leading this article to conclude that it is means 'onion', calquing šum-sikil, so that the unattested wašḫar is the Hittite word for 'garlic'. Alimenta Hethaeorum : Food Production in Hittite Asia Minor (which they had in the public library, woohoo!) amplifies the analysis and agrees. More recently, this article covers the question more carefully and explores the larger Indo-European space. It relates the reconstructed root *wósHx₀r to a couple of 'garlic' words, Pushto ووږه ūža and Khowar wǝẓnū; to Sanskrit उष्ण uṣṇa 'onion', rejecting its immediate derivation from 'hot'; and to Latin ūnio 'onion', implicitly rejecting the usual etymology from 'unity' via 'single large pearl'. The 'hot' derivation may stand but has to happen earlier than Indo-Iranian directly from *eus. When the younger *kremus 'wild garlic' word came along, it mostly supplanted this older one. All of which frankly seems a little much to me. The Chicago Hittite Dictionary is working on S and making results available in PDF form, but it is only up to Si-; the eCHD has P and part of N.

Herodotus tells us that the workers on The Great Pyramid were fed rations that included garlic:

σεσήμανται δὲ διὰ γραμμάτων Αἰγυπτίων ἐν τῇ πυραμίδι ὅσα ἔς τε συρμαίην καὶ κρόμμυα καὶ σκόροδα ἀναισιμώθη τοῖσι ἐργαζομένοισι· (Histories 2:125.6)
On the pyramid it is declared in Egyptian writing how much was spent on radishes and onions and [garlic] for the workmen: (tr. Macaulay)
(Macaulay actually has 'leeks' for σκόροδα, but it is presumably 'garlic'.)

I am not aware of any such inscription having been found. The Coptic word for 'garlic' is ϣϫⲏⲛ šjen, evidently from Ancient Egyptian x:y-TA-Z1-n:A-M2:Z2 ḫṯn, which is probably a Semitic loanword from something like חָצִיר ḥāṣîr 'grass; leek', as in the Numbers verse quoted above. The hieroglyphic is associated with Demotic ḫḏn. (As luck would have it, the Chicago Demotic Dictionary just added the Ḫ volume last week; this word get more than a page. As of right now, only is up to date, not the mirror.) The Semitic source might be related to Ugaritic 𐎃𐎒𐎆𐎐 ḫswn, which might alternatively mean 'lettuce'. Budge gives a ti-X:a-m-M2 tˁm and lists some of the Semitic 'garlic' words given above as sources / cognates. Pliny says:

Allium cæpasque inter deos in jurejurando habet Ægyptus.
Onion and garlic are included among the gods by the Egyptians when taking an oath. (Natural History XIX 32)
Again I am not aware of anything like that being the case.

In Turkish, 'garlic' is sarımsak, with very similar forms in other Turkic languages, as a well as a loan to Mongolian ᠰᠠᠷᠢᠮᠰᠠᡍ sarimsaγ (in Cyrillic, саримсаг; Modern Mongolian also has сармис  – Thanks, Joseph K.) Here is an article discussing the arguments of an earlier article deriving this from Iranian (*sigra as above) and that from Proto-Indo-European *kremus 'wild garlic' (again above), specifically refuting the latter part of the argument. Here is a Turkish riddle:

kırk kişi idik,
kırıldık geçtik
hepimiz bir kefene sarıldık geçtik.
— sarımsak
We were forty persons,
We went all at once,
We were all put into a shroud and went.
— garlic

That makes three articles from Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae on the fringes of etymology for Anatolian 'garlic' words. I might wish that they were online for free, or cheaper, but I guess €20 isn't completely outrageous. Nobody but Widener has the hardcopy in Boston, and they are notoriously stingy. Hungarian for 'garlic' is fokhagyma. hagyma is 'onion' or more fully vöröshagyma 'red onion'. fok is 'cape (body of water)' or 'step', so I really don't get the connection. póréhagyma is 'leek', from Latin porrum by way of German Porree, itself from West French porée, standard French poireau, and so like Old English porleác. I need better reference materials than the ancient stuff in Google Books. Schoenhofs' web site lists a reasonably priced Magyar Szófejtő Szótár, but I don't remember seeing it in stock.

Sanskrit लशुन laśuna yields Hindi लहसन lahsan, Urdu لہسن lahsan (but also سیر sīr from Persian), Nepali लसुन lasun, Marathi लसूण lasūṇ, Bengali রসুন rasuna, Gujarati લસણ lasaṇa, Oriya ରସୁଣ rasuṇa, Punjabi ਲਸਣ lasaṇ, Konkani लोसुण losuṇa. I wanted to include a choice quote from The Bower Manuscript (better description in this review of Hoernle's publication) on the Origin (and folk etymology) of Garlic (quoted in English in The Book of Garlic from an article by von Strubing in Ernährungsforschung), but even the inexpensive Indian edition is a bit steep. So if I manage to track it down, it can be part of the next garlic post. Tamil has வெள்ளைப்பூண்டு veḷḷaippūṇṭu 'white herb', less commonly வெள்ளுள்ளி veḷuḷḷi, like Malayalam വെളുത്തുള്ളി veḷuththuḷḷi and Kannada ಬೆಳ್ಳುಳ್ಳಿ beḷḷuḷḷi 'white onion', and வெள்வெங்காயம veḷvengkāyam, like Badaga beḷḷe benguve (வெள்ளெவெஙுவெ?) 'white onion'.

Indonesian bawang putih, Malay bawang puteh and Madurese bhabang poté 'onion, white'. Tagalog gets by with just báwang for 'garlic', since it borrows Spanish cebollas as sibuyas for 'onion'.

The Chinese word for 'garlic' is 蒜 suan4, from something like swân. The character is a plant 艸 that sounds like 祘 suan4 'count'; it has nothing to do with 示, but is presumably a picture of some kind of counting device. A more common suan4 'count' character is 算. Traditionally one would give a baby a 蒜 suan4 'garlic' bath so that he would excel at 算盤 suan4pan2 'the abacus' or 算術 suan4shu4 'arithmetic'.

The word swân must have also covered 'onion' at some time or place. Lahu šū-phu 'garlic' is 'dog onion' because it is shaped like the bottom of a dog's paw; šū-qō 'hollow onion' is 'leek'. Burmese က္ရက္‌သ္ဝန္‌ဖ္ရူ krak swan pʰrú is 'garlic'; က္ရက္‌သ္ဝန္‌နီ krak swan ní or just က္ရက္‌သ္ဝန္ krak swan is 'onion';  ဖ္ရူ pʰrú is 'white' and နီ is 'red'; ခား kʰá: is 'bitter'. Hani haqseil 'garlic' is, I believe, similarly 'bitter onion'. Tibetan for 'garlic' is སྒོག་པ་ sgóg-pa.

Thai for 'garlic' is กระเทียม grà-tiam; กระเทียมหอม grà-tiam hŏm 'sweet-smelling garlic' is 'leek'. In Khmer, 'garlic' is ខ្ទឹមស ktɨm sɑɑ 'onion, white'. In Lao, ຫົວຜັກທຽມ hua pa:k tiam 'head vegetable -like' is 'garlic', ຫົວຜັກບົວ hua pa:k bua 'head vegetable bulb' or just ຜັກບົວ pa:k bua being 'onion'. Japanese ニンニク ninniku; Korean 마늘 maneul; Vietnamese tỏi.

Amharic ነጭ ሽንኩርት nač' šənəkurətə 'white onion' for 'garlic' and ቀይ ሽንኵርት qayə šənəkurətə 'red onion' for 'shallot'. Swahili kitunguu saumu 'garlic' has kitunguu 'onion' and saumu is presumably 'garlic' from some Semitic language. Igbo ayo-ishi and Yoruba áyù are from Portuguese alho I imagine.

I suppose any garlic discussion has to have a little bit about vampires. It is not surprising that something strong smelling and tasting would be efficacious against disease and malevolent influences, which are not distinguished very well in some world views. Elsewhere in his Natural History, Pliny lists some such garlic cures. As for vampires specifically, Montague Summers' The Vampire spends most of its paragraph on garlic repeating both of the references to garlic from Frazer's Golden Bough, including the exact same sources in footnotes. A further mention of stuffing garlic in the mouths of decapitated vampires comes from Frazer's The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Religion, I believe. The remaining sentence just says that in China they wet a child's forehead with garlic to protect against vampires (so that they can grow up to be good accountants).

Of course, much of our standard notions comes from Bram Stoker. Thus, his Van Helsing,

Come with me, friend John, and you shall help me deck the room with my garlic, which is all the way from Haarlem, where my friend Vanderpool raise herb in his glass houses all the year. I had to telegraph yesterday, or they would not have been here.
We know that much of what Stoker wrote comes from The Land Beyond the Forest by Emily Gerard, in particular the garlic and wooden stakes. And apparently, the problem in Transylvania was less vampires and more strige (singular striga), which are spirits of living or restless dead witches. In Latin, strix is properly 'screech-owl', but mainly some kind of flying menace to young children. Ovid (Metamorphoses 7, 269) has the strigis infames 'notorious witches' along with the werewolf in the full moon. As mentioned by Leland, Quintus Serenus Sammonicus' Liber Medicinalis says:
Praeterea si forte premit strix atra puellos
Virosa immulgens exertis ubera labris,
Alia praecepit Titini sententia necti,
Qui veteri claras expressit more togatas.
Moreover, if by chance a malicious witch comes close to the children
To make them suck her poisonous teats,
Titinius' opinion proposes fastening garlic,
He who put on celebrated toga-plays in the old way.
And according to Murgoci, strigele dance and say,
Nup, Cuisnup,
In casa cu ustoroi nu ma duc.
Nup, Cuisnup,
I won't enter any house where there is garlic.
usturoi is Romanian for 'garlic' (presumably from ustura 'to smart, sting, bite, burn', from Latin ustulare – LanguageHat in a comment).

To keep things more directly within the purview of this blog, Gerard is also where Stoker gets nosferatu, a word which as near as anyone can tell does not really exist, though there are many fanciful theories for what it was supposed to be.


language said...

póréhagyma is 'leek', which I imagine is just Latin porrum

The etymological dictionary I consulted when I was adding etymologies to my Hungarian dictionary a dozen years ago in NYC (at the wonderful Donnell Branch of the NYPL) said póré(hagyma) was first attested in 1783 and was perhaps from German (i.e., Porree, itself from Latin via Old French).

ustroroi is Romanian for 'garlic'.

Actually, it's usturoi, presumably from ustura 'to smart, sting, bite, burn' (from Latin ustulare).

Your quote from Numbers is explicated in Michael Wex's delightful Born to Kvetch thusly:

"Now, the merest kheyder boy knows that the manna about which they were complaining could assume any taste that the eater wanted it to have, so why should they be complaining about missing these particular foods? ... Rashi explains it, with the help of a medresh: 'Rabbi Simeon said: Why could the manna change its taste to that of anything but these five things? Because they are not good for nursing mothers, who are told, "Do not eat garlic and onions because they are not good for the child."' ... [T]he onion and the garlic -- two Eastern European foods par excellence -- have been repaid for having been slighted in the manna's pantheon of taste. They are supposed to be eaten every shabbes as a means of completing the Sabbath pleasure; since these flavors were excluded from the manna, which could taste like anything else, they came to stand for every sort of exotic delicacy. Since onions were also very cheap, it was easy to get them for shabbes; the almost worthless onion thus became the vegetable world's counterpart of the Jew, whose status was likewise exalted on the Sabbath."

MMcM said...

Thanks! I've corrected the Romanian typo and extended the póréhagyma explanation.

Unknown said...

There's a free Akkadian Unicode font here, & indeed with it installed your šumˢᵃʳ shows correctly in my rss aggregator.

Not that I can understand them at all, but I really enjoy seeing the various unicode cuneiform scripts in your posts. I have fonts installed, but this is the only place I get to see them in use.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Talk about the kitchen sink...!

Good job.

JosephK said...

Just for reference: Modern (Cyrillic) Mongolian for garlic is сармис

MMcM said...

ngögam: Those fonts are a great find. I've copied the link next to the sample. Now for the consortium to get its act together so we can use more of them with official mappings.

Joseph K: Thanks. I've put that next to the Uighur, which is probably less practical even if much cooler looking. I couldn't resist buying a couple loose manuscript leaves off somebody in Mongolia on eBay a while ago.

Morocco Time said...

In Moroccan Arabic, it's also "tūmā."

JosephK said...

Well, now I feel somewhat sheepish. I originally checked an English-Mongolian dictionary, which gave сармис. But when I checked Chinese-Mongolian and Japanese-Mongolian dictionaries, I found: сармис, саримсаг. So obviously both forms are around, but сармис, being listed first, is possibly more common. I haven't checked with a native speaker yet.

JosephK said...

OK, I've checked with an Ulaanbaatar native. Apparently сармис is normal. Саримсаг is hardly ever used and may not be understood by everyone My informant had seen саримсаг in print or writing but had never used it herself.

I don't know the situation in Inner Mongolia.

Rosemary Camilleri, PhD said...

In my kitchen, I have posted modest labels on each cabinet. Prominent among them is a small announcement, meant to be a pun in Latin: Si allium requiris, circumspice.
And indeed, the fresh garlic (and the other items) are out on the counter.

Unknown said...

  « "Hungarian for 'garlic' is fokhagyma. hagyma is 'onion' or more fully vöröshagyma 'red onion'. fok is 'cape (body of water)' or 'step', so I really don't get the connection." »

According to at least one online Hungarian dictionary,
"fok" means, among other things, "division"; "degree", which makes sense as "clove", I think.

(The other online hungarian dictionary I usually use,, is not loading at this point in time.)

JosephK said...

Despite its shortcomings, you might find Wiktionary a good starting point for your travels. It actually lists the modern Mongolian word for 'garlic', along with many others such as Kurdish.

Wing Commander Bellie Jayaprakash said...

I find it interesting that you have used '!!' instead of 'll' in be!!e benguve to identify garlic in Badaga (South Indian Language without a script)to put emphasis on 'l'. Incidentally, bella [pronounced as bell ah] without emphasis on 'l' is jagery in Badaga where as be!!a [emphasis on 'l'] could mean a male name.


Always look forward for such nice post & finally I got you. Really very impressive post & glad to read this.
Web Development Company in Greater Noida
Software development company In Greater noida

Homoeopathic treatment for Psoriasis in greater noida
Kidney Disease Homoeopathy Doctor In Greater Noida
CMS and ED