Monday, August 18, 2008

Horsing Around

Charles from Williamsburg had an interesting theory on the origin of the word horseradish. He speculated that the German word for horseradish --meerrettich-- influenced English because the -meer- segment would sound like mare, a female horse.

I don’t know German, so I have to rely on other sources. The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that while the horse in horseradish doesn’t come directly from the animal, it does refer to a characteristic of a draft horse: it is large, strong, and coarse.

Horseradish has broad, rough leaves, and its root, used to make the condiment, has a very strong, pungent flavor. Other plants also have the -horse- element, and in every case, it’s a descriptor of something coarse, rough, large, or strong-flavored. Thus, we have horse-bane, horse-brier, horse-cress, horse-ginseng, horse-mushroom, horse-nettle, horse-parsley, and horse-vetch.

Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages says that the German meerrettich means “greater radish,” and the French word for radish --raifort-- probably came from the Latin radis fortis, strong root.

And I have to end with something that I found in Lidell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. A verb in ancient Greek (hraphanidooe) is translated as “to thrust a radish up the fundament,” and it is described as a punishment of adulterers in Athens.

In her book Women, Crime, and Punishment in Ancient Law and Society, Elisabeth Meier Tetlow says that the offending radish was shaped like a zucchini, but was much larger, and as it was manipulated, the man’s pubic hair was burned off with hot ashes.

Time to watch Fatal Attraction again.

SIDEBAR: horseradish recipes

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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