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Garlic and Language

Spoiler alert- I found someone who wrote on this very topic but did a better job and goes into more detail. Read my thoughts and then go over, or just scroll to the bottom of this page for the link. Can't win 'em all, eh?

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 sharp 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 that 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.

In addition, (sorry to wait for the end for this)- this blogger here basically wrote the exact kind of article I wish I had written. Here is literally a better-done article on this very topic of garlic and linguistics by someone else, waxing eloquently in a way that makes my previous stab at the topic look absolutely wanting in comparison - the blogger's name is the Polyglot Vegetarian,  read their garlic and linguistics article here.

You can confidently assume that if anything I say and they say conflicts, trust them- looks like they dug deeper! Pun intended. Punintentional.



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