March 31, 2015

Words of the Month - Unexpectedly Sweet

       The sap is rising and all around New England there are buckets on the maple trees.  So I thought I’d collect some sweet words to boil down and present to you today.  English has many words for sweetness and sweet things.  As usual, English derived these words from a variety of different sources.  We’ll start with the Proto-Indo-European word that meant “pleasant, sweet.”  English has several words that originated in this root and retain echoes of sweetness, but which came to us through different languages that evolved from Proto-Indo-European.  First, from Latin we get persuade, meaning “recommend as pleasant,” and assuage meaning “sweeten,” or “make more pleasant.”  From Latin we also get sweet itself.  From Greek we get hedonism, meaning “the sweet life.”  (It’s hard to see the phonetic connection in that one, but it’s there, through multiple sound shifts.)
        Sugar itself, however, comes to us from Sanskrit, from a root meaning “gravel, grit.”  We got the word sugar, just as we got the sugar itself, from India by way of Arabic, since Europeans didn’t have sugar cane and used honey as their sweetener until after the Crusades.  Our word honey is from a Germanic root and may have originally described the golden color.  However, from the Latin word for honey English has ended up with mellifluous (“honey sweet”), mildew (something sticky on plants like the “honeydew” exuded by aphids), and molasses (from Latin “resembling honey.”  Interestingly, the English word has a plural form despite being considered a singular noun.  You never hear people talking about multiple molasseses, but I actually have two different molasseses in my cupboard right now!)  Also from the Proto-Indo-European honey root, but at a longer stretch, comes amethyst, a gem that was believed to guard against intoxication.  The connection is the Greek word for wine, which came from the same root meaning honey.
        But back to our Sanskrit sugarSaccharine, meaning “sugary” is from Greek, but the Greeks got it from that Sanskrit word.  And my favorite word of the day: seersucker.  This comes directly from a Persian word meaning “milk and sugar,” presumably referring to the fabric’s alternating smooth and bumpy stripes.  Seersucker is sweeter than most people give it credit for.  One more funny etymological tidbit about sugar: the OED lists the word as a substitute swear-word from 1891, but not as a term of endearment until 1930.
        (And finally, for the source of syrup, see this previous post.)
        How sweet it is to learn etymologies!

[Picture: Maple Sugar, hand-painted wood block print by Mary Azarian, c 1978 (Image from Mary Azarian).]

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