Daily Archives: February 24, 2014


As I mentioned yesterday, I like coriander, and the word coriander, and the word cilantro, but cilantro itself not as much.

And yes, I know that coriander and cilantro are the same plant. Here in North America among Anglophones, it is usual for cilantro to refer to the leaves and coriander to the seeds.

So you would think that, coming from the same plant, they would taste about the same, right? Well. You would think that, coming from the same Latin (and Greek) root, coriander and cilantro would be about the same word, wouldn’t you, but they’re as different as the things they name: there’s a resemblance, but there are obvious differences.

The origin of these two words is Greek κορίαννον koriannon, which became Latin coriandrum. But then, just as one part of a plant becomes a leaf and another a seed, the word became two words – because of dissimilation: since there’s another /r/ later in the word, the first /r/ became (for some speakers) /l/. So we got a variant word, coliandrum. And that changed a bit more when taken into Spanish: the /um/ into /o/, which is the standard development from Latin into Spanish and Italian, and the /d/ into /t/, the /o/ into /u/, and the /i/ dropped – probably for ease of articulation. Thus culantro. And that further changed, through processes unclear to me, into cilantro.

So you have on the one hand coriander, with a hard /k/ at the start and hollow /ɔ/ and /ri/ rolling in the middle, and a /dr/ on the end (because French converted drum into dre and we got it from them and changed it a little), and on the other hand cilantro, with soft /s/ and narrow /ɪ/ (or narrower /i/ in Spanish) and liquid /l/ and final /tro/. The /æn/ at the heart stays the same. So cilantro is soft at the start like a leaf, but crisper and rolling at the end, while coriander is harder at the start and then rolls all through like a seed on the tongue. And cilantro gives us resonances of silly and cilia and supercilious and slant and Elantra and entropy and el centro. It’s a more Spanish sound.

Is it a more Spanish taste? Certainly fresh cilantro is a central salsa savoury. And I don’t mind it so much in that context as long as it’s not overdone. But cook it into a soup and it becomes soapy. I do like a nice bowl of pho, that Vietnamese specialty, but when I hit a soggy limp cilantro leaf in it, well, that’s never the high point. But different people have different tastes.

Anyway, unlike coriander, cilantro does not open a door in the hall of memories for me. And nothing gives a word flavour like your own personal memories.