Retsina, as Tony Aspler points out, is an anagram of nastier. And, you know, that just about says it all.

OK, OK, millions of Greek people – and some non-Greek people too – like the stuff, even if others among us find it more suited for floor polish. I mean, seriously, wine flavoured with pine resin? It was a try-once thing for me.

But we’re not here to talk about the taste of retsina. We’re here to talk about the taste of retsina (you see, the italics there mean I’m referring to the word qua a word, not to its referent!).

Admittedly, anagrams are a part of the swirl-and-sniff of a word, and if they seem apposite – or even if they seem ironic, like stainer, which doesn’t really go for a white wine like most retsina is – then the taste of the word surely retains them. But there’s so much more. Say it: “re-tsi-na”. See how it stays at the tip of your tongue? If you’re among the many who use a retroflex /r/, then, yes, it starts more in the middle of the mouth, but even then probably towards the tip, in anticipation of the next consonants: /ts/ and then /n/.

Ah, that /ts/: a tasty pair, slightly sternutatory but anyway with a sense of salivation. English speakers usually say it across a syllable boundary, but in many other languages – including Greek – it’s an affricate and is all at the start of the syllable. Does it seem odd to start a syllable with /ts/? We start syllables all the time with just a slight change from that – move the tongue back a bit and you have “ch”.

One common way for an affricate to come about, by the way, is for a stop to occur before a vowel that causes the tongue to peel more slowly away from the palate. This is well-known in the development of Latin: for example, tio, originally /tio/, became over time /tsio/ (and then in some languages that borrowed the words went on and replaces the /tsi/ with a single “sh” fricative). But the same affricate can come about through other means, even from a /z/ or an /s/ in some cases. And that is what makes the etymology of this word a bit sticky.

It’s likely you’ve noticed the resemblance between retsina and resin. It’s for real: the words are cognate. The question is whether Greek retsina was borrowed from Latin resina or developed from ancient Greek ρητινη (rétiné), both of which meant “resin”. (Modern Greek for “resin” is ρητσινι, just one letter different from our word du jour.) The problem with the Latin source is that there isn’t any surviving Latin example of resina referring to resinated wine; the problem with the Greek source is that it would require an unusual morphological development – it would be expected to end in η, not α.

But no need to whine about it. Either way, we know what it is and we generally know what it comes from. And if you’re mixing grapes with sap, well, heck, that seems a bit less natural than some unexpected or unattested derivation, doesn’t it?

You gotta wonder, though, who came up with the idea of adding pine resin to wine. It’s not as though it leaches from the barrel – it’s added in small pieces to the crushed grapes and is filtered out with the skins. Seems to me a smarter thing to do with sap would involve boiling it, skimming it, and pouring it on your pancakes. But I guess if the Greeks don’t have maples… Well, they still don’t have to drink the stuff.

5 responses to “retsina

  1. I’ve been told (thanks, Dawn!) of a story in circulation that retsina came about when a Greek town was besieged by Romans and, rather than let the Romans take the wine, they tainted it with resin – and then they came to like the flavour. This story immediately struck me as probably spurious, so I did a quick check (for some reason, the Oxford Companion to Wine, which I referred to when writing this note, didn’t have the origins in it). The current accepted theory appears to be that it came from the practice of sealing amphorae with resin to keep the wine from spoiling through oxidation. Although barrels obviated this practice by the 3rd century AD, a taste for the taste remained.

    Imagine that. Two millennia of liking the taste of wine that’s been gummed up with pine tar. Not that many things in cuisine stick around that long! (Some things people think have been with us for centuries are much younger than you might expect. Goulash comes to mind – see my note on pörkölt.)

    • Oh, and croissants. Their supposed origin (as the story has it – also involving a siege) would have occurred centuries before they were actually invented. What’s the story? Easily looked up – hmm, though, maybe a note is in order…

    • A much more likely explanation — thanks, James!

  2. Pingback: Gewürtztraminer | Sesquiotica

  3. Pingback: Gewürztraminer | Sesquiotica

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