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wormwood etymology

The wiles of folk etymology

Words, as linguistics tells us, are conventional signs. Some natural phenomenon is called rain or snow, and, if you don’t know what those words mean, you will never guess. But everything in our consciousness militates against such a rupture between word and thing. That is why we love words that reveal their origin: sound-symbolic formations and onomatopoeias. Take Henry Fielding’s Squire Allworthy, Oliver Twist’s tyrant Mr Bumble, David Copperfield’s tormentor Mr Creakle, and their ilk. It is gratifying to learn that Mr Allworthy was the very embodiment of worth, that Mr Bumble was a cross between a pernicious bumblebee and a bungler, and that Mr Creakle had no voice. Etymologists try to show that once upon a time all words had meaningful beginnings, and occasionally they succeed. When they fail, people take control of the business and (to give one example) begin to discuss among themselves whether a certain project is hare- or hairbrained. This is not a silly question, especially if you remember how quick hares are and how thin a hair may be. To add more confusion to this type of reasoning, stained sycamore wood is hare– or hairwood, though it has nothing to do with either hares or hair.

The process of turning the incomprehensible foreign word asparagus into a decipherable monster called sparrowgrass is known as folk (or popular) etymology. The term Volksetymologie was coined in the nineteenth century by a German scholar and soon spread all over the world. In English, sparrowgrass has given a rich yield. The history of some words in this group is instructive and amusing. Below, I’ll speak about two of them.


A regular worm wood.
Image by Danna & Curious Tangles via Flickr

 This plant name goes back to Old English, where it sounded wermōd and had very similar cognates elsewhere in West Germanic. We cannot decide whether wermōd was werm-ōd or wer-mōd. In no Old Germanic language was the worm called werm; the recorded forms were wurm, wyrm, wirm, and so forth. Though absinthium “wormwood” was indeed used as a remedy against worms, the vowels in the words that interest us do not match. Alas, vowels, not worms, bother etymologists. If our starting point is wer-mōd, it is perhaps possible to associate wer– with Old Engl. werian “to protect, defend” (compare German wehren, familiar to many from Wehr-macht “the defense branch of the Third Reich”). Mōd will then emerge as the ancestor of Modern Engl. mood, which in the Old English period meant “mind, thought.” Thus, “keep-mind, thought-preserver,” from a belief in its medicinal virtue? Similar beliefs associated with the plant world, though not specifically with wormwood, have been recorded.

But if werm– in wermōd refers to worms, what is –od? Such a suffix did exist in Germanic. It has been well-preserved in several forms in Modern German, for example, in Heim-at “homeland” (heim “home”), Arm-ut “poverty” (arm “poor”), Ein-öd-e “desert, wasteland” (ein “one), and others. It is no longer understood as a suffix (hence the multiplicity of forms, and the words with the remnants of it can belong to any of the three grammatical genders). Unfortunately, werm– makes little sense. An old etymology tried to associate wormwood with warmth, “on account of the warmth this plant produces in the stomach.” Wormwood is widely used in medicine. I do not know whether wormwood warms the stomach or perhaps even the cockles of one’s heart, but the vowels u ~ a (again vowels!) in the Old English roots are incompatible. Perhaps even in Old English, the word fell victim to the pressure of folk etymology and m did appear under the influence of worm? Then the root is wer-, but, even if so, it hardly meant “to defend.”

A reincarnation of the plant.
Image by Kenneth C. Zirkel via Wikimedia Commons

I have often referred to the mysterious prefix known as s-mobile, that is, “movable s.” It attaches itself to roots for the reasons no one has been able to explain with sufficient clarity. (Since I am speaking about wood, I might perhaps mention the fact that Francis A. Wood, an extremely knowledgeable and prolific etymologist of the Chicago school, mocked the idea of s-mobile; however, this spurious but intractable element exists.)  There is a Celtic root swer-, which means “bitter.” Celtic is an Indo-European language, like Germanic, so that light from Old Irish and Welsh should never be ignored in discussing a Germanic word. But in this case the light is dim, and the etymology of wormwood as a bitter plant (the plant is indeed bitter) is no more than a guess. Given this interpretation, the second syllable will remain a suffix. It is no wonder that our dictionaries call wormwood a word of unknown or obscure origin. Yet one thing seems to be rather certain. The plant name has nothing to do with worms; werm-ōd or wer-mōd, the association with worms seems to be a product of folk etymology. In English, the second w (wormwood) arose under the influence of the first or is another tribute to folk etymology: wormwood is a rather woody plant! A bitter story: etymological gall and wormwood. One consolation is that the German cognate of wormwood is Wermut (Anglicized as Wermouth or Vermouth and now producing another wrong association, this time with mouth!)—that is, if you are not teetotal and have a taste for fortified wines.


I am sorry if my today’s examples happen to leave a bitter taste. Such was not my intention. The word massacre surfaced in English in the sixteenth century and is a borrowing from Old French, but its origin in that language has not been found. Only folk etymology has no problems with massacre: “of course,” it means “mass killing.” No, it does not. In Old French, the word had several variants: massacre, maçacre, macecre, and macecle. This instability shows that the origin of the word was even then not clear to the speakers and that the root mass– may have been associated with the noun mass long ago. According to an ingenious hypothesis, massacre is a blend of (am)mazzare “‘to slaughter, kill” (compare Engl. macerate and emaciate) and sacrare “to consecrate” (both forms are given here in their Modern Italian forms). Such blends exist. For example, vituperate goes back to Latin vitium “blemish” and parare “to prepare.” But the existence of a blend, unless the blending has occurred before our eyes (as in Brexit, blog, or smog), is hard to prove.

Old or new, massacres are equally horrifying.
“Claudius Civilis Defeats the Roman Troops near the Rhine in 69 AD”, Rijksmuseum via Picryl.

A more reasonable hypothesis traces the French word to Germanic. German metzeln means “to butchery, slaughter,” and the corresponding noun is Metzelei. Its source is Latin mactare “to sacrifice a victim; destroy.” (Those familiar with German will recognize Metzger “butcher,” now a northern word, but formerly current in the south.) If this derivation is correct, massacre was coined in the Germanic-speaking area, traveled to France, and then returned—indeed, not exactly home but closer to the place of birth. But we cannot be sure that such is the true story of massacre. As in the discussion of wormwood, my goal was to show how people try to make words mean what words are supposed to mean. With massacre the fit is perfect: the word indeed presupposes the destruction of great masses of people, but in the story of wormwood folk etymology leads us astray: the plant is not wormy, and wood has very little to do with it. Yet worms are indeed afraid of wormwood. Poetic justice can be expected everywhere, even in etymology and pharmacology.

Feature image by Eddideigel via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Gerhard Schreiber

    Belated comment on „Folklore and etymology – imps and elves (March 3rd 2021):
    The German equivalent to elfshot (for lumbago) is Hexenschuss.
    Comment on „The wiles of folk etymology“(December 11th 2021:
    I must contradict your statement „Those familiar with German will recognize Metzger “butcher,” now a northern word, but formerly current in the south.
    Metzger is definitively still dominant in western and southern Germany cf. Atlas der deutschen Alltagssprache: https://www.atlas-alltagssprache.de/runde-2/f09a-b/

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