Garlic and Language

Language is how we frame our world- and our words for things can illustrate how we "nest" concepts within one another. And the words for garlic around the world illustrate this.

First off, for English, modern garlic comes from Old English gārlēac, which means spear-leek. It seems the ole Anglo-Saxons were most familiar with leeks, and garlic must have come later to them. I see many sources suggesting that it comes from the cloves of garlic being shaped like a spearhead, but I think there are two more likely possibilities. If you've ever let a hardneck garlic bolt, you've seen the majestic rise of the scape straightening out. I let a patch go once and it looked like a horde of warriors with spears aloft, reaching to five or six feet. My second theory is based on how many times I get my eyes poked bending down to weed or harvest garlic- those seemingly soft leaves still have a point!

Those familiar with Anglo-Saxon and Norse names may note that the root gār ("spear") is the same as what shows up in the names Edgar, Hrothgar (becoming Rodger), Alfgar, and many others. It's also seen in the opening lines of Beowulf in reference to the Spear-Danes- 

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum

Listen! We of the Spear-Danes in the days of yore


The word allium, used as the name of the genus garlic, onions, leeks, scallions, and their many wild cousins belong to, comes from the Latin word for garlic. There is a possibility that the Romans themselves borrowed the word from an old Celtic verb root all- meaning"burn," in reference to its heat. The Romance languages (those descended from Latin) largely have words that are just evolved forms of allium that are a fun view of consistent sound change. Spanish ajo, Italian aglio, and French ail illustrate how the Latin -llium consistently changed to -jo, -glio, and -il.

Mandarin has an interesting sorting of the whole allium family- take a look:

野蒜 yěsuàn wild garlic (lit. wild garlic)
大蒜 dàsuàn garlic (lit. big garlic)
cōng leek
洋葱 yángcōng onion

For those interested, this is an article I found that does a breakdown of the evolution of the words for the onion in Europe. For those new to linguistics, this is a good introduction to the concept of semantic drift, where a word's meaning changes over time, until the point that an entirely new word may be needed for the original concept. You can see that just in Europe alone, the allium family has exchanged meanings between the word-roots for onions, scallions, leeks, garlic, and others.