carob, Carib

Ah, carob, with its pseudo-chocolately notes of and gold and beaches and anthropophagy and entomophagy… It has a sort of heavy thickness in my tasting of it,  perhaps from the echo of rubber, or perhaps just from my own experience of herbal teas and similar things made with its object, which doesn’t really substitute nicely for chocolate. Sort of, yes, but not really. Kind of rich and gross.

…Gold and beaches and anthropophagy and entomophagy? Well, OK, I’m cheating on two of those. You see, carob and its common collocation carob bean make me think of Carib and Caribbean (and, as it happens, vice-versa), a sunnier-tasting word, just because it makes one think of sun, water, and golden beaches. Carib is one version of a name for the people who were living in the Caribbean area when Columbus arrived. Other versions of the same word are Caniba, Caribe, and Galibi – those tip-of-the-tongue consonants shift dialectally (this happens in other parts of the world, too – various groups of the Sioux peoples are Lakota, Dakota, and Nakoda, for instance). Not that carib was what they called themselves, per se; the word was one they used to refer to manly virtues of bravery and daring – a “man’s man,” perhaps.

And did those virtues include eating other men’s men? Hmm… I’ll bite. The Caribs did have a reputation for athropophagy, though it seems to have come from a limited sphere – a ritual involving chewing on the flesh of one’s defeated enemies – and so this word in its various versions became associated with brute savagery (as with Shakespeare’s Caliban) and, well, cannibalism – yes, cannibal comes from the same word. Think of that – or don’t – next time you’re in the West Indies drinking a Carib beer. (Would this be a good time to point out that the word barbecue comes from the same region?)

By comparison, carob is pure gold, even if it does have that creepy echo of scarab. Not that it has anything to do with scarab… Locusts yes, scarabs no. You see, the Hebrew word for “carob” (haruv – yes, cognate; carob comes by way of Arabic kharrub) was also used to mean “locust”. This is why the thickener made from carob beans is often called locust bean gum.

Now that you know that etymology, wouldn’t you rather avoid entomophagy – wouldn’t you rather eat a bean pod than a bug? So much easier to catch, too. I know if I were living out in the wilderness I would go for the beans. And though John the Baptist is said to have dieted on bugs and wild honey, the bugs in question were locusts – which means that the locus of meaning may have been lost or misconstrued: ah, and beans to another cherished bit of the scriptural mythos. (Just tangentially, Luther didn’t actually eat worms, either.) By the way, when the prodigal son hungered after the pods he fed the pigs, they were probably carob too.

So this bean may not seem exactly exalted in the culinary realm. And yet its syrup is popular as a sweetener; it is so important to the economy of Cyprus that they call it Cyprus’s black gold. It gets better still, though: this lowly seed sets the standard for gold.

Oh, yes, that’s the solid truth! In Roman times, there was a coin called the solidus that was made with pure gold. It weighed a sixth of an ounce – or as much as 24 standard-sized carob seeds (which were a reference weight). The purity of gold came to be measured on this basis. Greek for carob seed was κερατιον keration, not actually from the Arabic kharrub but from the Greek word for “horn”. From keration came our word carat or karat (we may observe that this kind of carat can tend to be sticky); pure gold is 24-carat or 24-karat gold, while a metal that is only 50% gold is 12-karat or 12-carat.

We may also note that there are 144 standard-sized carob seeds to the ounce. That’s six solidi – and more than $1400 as of when I’m writing this. An ounce of gold could help make one rich… and one gross.

It would also pay for a nice Caribbean cruise. And the food on those ships is so nice.

6 responses to “carob, Carib

  1. There may be a connection between carib/cannibal and Hebrew QoRBaN = victim, sacrifice. QoRBaN is a reversal of BaRaQ = lightning, thunderbolt (compare baracuda) … so originally, the corban/korban may have been the victim of a lightning strike.

    • You’re proposing a linguistic link between Hebrew and peoples of the pre-Columbian Americas?

      • Israel A Cohen

        No. I am proposing a link between the alleged cannibalistic behavior of the native Caribbeans encountered on the first voyage of Columbus as reported by the first person to meet them.

        Luis de Torres (died 1493), perhaps born as Yosef Ben HaLevy Haivri (“Joseph the son of Levy the Hebrew”), was Christopher Columbus’s interpreter on his first voyage and reported in the ship’s log to be the first person on that voyage to encounter the natives.

        The standard derivation of Caribbean is from the Carib natives whose name is said to be derived from Arawakan kalingo or kalino, which means “brave ones” or else “strong men.” But Luis de Torres is very likely to have used the term “korban” meaning sacrificial victim when describing their behavior. Ironically, he may have become such a victim. See:

      • Interesting. Here are the quotations the QED adduces in favour of the standard theory:

        1553 R. Eden tr. S. Münster Treat. Newe India sig. Gviijv, Columbus‥sayled toward ye South, & at ye length came to the Ilandes of the Canibals. And because he came thether on the Sundaye called the Dominical day, he called the Iland‥Dominica.‥ Insula Crucis‥was also an Ilande of the Canibales.

        1555 R. Eden tr. Peter Martyr of Angleria Decades of Newe Worlde i. i. f.3, The wylde and myscheuous people called Canibales, or Caribes, which were accustomed to eate mannes flesshe (and called of the olde writers Anthropophagi).‥ Vexed with the incursions of these manhuntyng Canibales.

        They also cite work by J.H. Trumbull, Notes and Queries (1875) s5-IV (87): 171-b-172, which in theory I have access to online, but my browsers on my home Mac simply will not cooperate with the website I can view it on, so I’ll have to look on a PC. It would seem that there’s an established history of usage of the word in its various forms in place for some time before it came to be used to refer to anthropophagy, but this may not necessarily be the case; I need to see what else there is to see.

        Obviously it would be very useful to have more data, which surely is lurking in archives in various places. If we could see clearly that the association with anthropophagy was present from the beginning, that would certainly be suggestive. There would remain the question of transference of sense from victim to victimizer (not too difficult if the same people were thought to be also the ones eaten), and of course the documented existence of the Arawakan root might indicate a confluence of Hebrew and Arawakan rather than a single source.

  2. A member of the email list for word tasting notes has pointed out to me that locusts are kosher for one group of Jews, though not for the rest, who have lost the tradition.

  3. Pingback: entomophagy | Sesquiotica

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