This word takes a lexical game of noughts and crosses to the nth degree. Indeed, looking at it, your eyes may be o o or x x; it looks as artificial as nylon, like something from sci-fi or fantasy. It reveals itself gradually, perhaps acrimoniously. Tell me how it’s even pronounced.

When I look at it, in a little moment I see xantho – from a Greek root meaning ‘yellow’ – and xylon – which might look similar to, for instance, xylophone, and rightly so, because they share a root – meaning ‘wood’. So ‘yellow wood’ – which is correct, that’s where it comes from – and because in English we have this idea you can’t start a syllable with /ks/, we say “zantho” for xantho and “zylon” for xylon. Which is how it strikes my eyes: “zanthozylon.”

But when the two parts are put together and read by people less familiar with Greek etymological elements, you get a single word that comes out as “zanthoksilon,” the dictionary pronunciation. Which kind of gives me a toothache. It sounds like a cross between an ocelot, an ox, and a Cylon (from Battlestar Galactica), from Xanth (a fantasy world created by Piers Anthony; most of the 38 books in the series have puns in their titles – I like Crewel Lye, subtitle A caustic yarn).

This word leads not into fantasy, however, but into botany. Which can be even more absorbing. Read this description of the plant:

Shrub 5 to 10 feet high, branches alternate, with scattered prickles, sharp, strong and straight. Leaves alternate, oddly pinnate, petiole round, often inerme, folioles 9 or 11 opposite, nearly sessile, ovate very sharp, with slight glandular serratures, somewhat downy beneath. Flowers in small sessile umbels, near the origin of young shoots, small and greenish. Diclinous polygamous, some shrubs bearing pistillate flowers, and others two kinds, both staminate and complete or perfect. These last have a 5 parted calyx with segments erect, oblong obtuse. Five stamens on the base of the gynophore, filaments subulate, anthers sagittate, 4 celled. Central gynophore divided into the stipes of the pistils, which are 3 or 4, oval, with a converging terete style and obtuse, stigma. Staminate flowers with an oval trifid abortive gynophore. Pistillate flowers with a smaller calyx. Capsules stipitate, elliptical punctate, reddish green, two valved, with one seed, oval and blackish.

That is from an 1830 book by C.S. Rafinesque, nicely quoted at Henriette’s Herbal Homepage. Such welters of technical descriptions have a curiously relaxing effect on me. I suppose they may cause some people to tense up.

Anyway, it’s a shrub with fairly standard-shaped leaves. It is noted for some medicinal qualities. It is used for, among other things, digestion and relief of rheumatism. It has a citrusy smell and taste, but is astringent.

The acrimony is not felt at first, when the bark or liquid is taken in the mouth, but unfolds itself gradually by a burning sensation on the tongue and palate.

Its stems may have a numbing effect, and it has a common name of Toothache bush:

In toothache, it is only a palliative, as I have ascertained on myself, the burning sensation which it produces on the mouth, merely mitigating the other pain, which returns afterwards.

But at least while you’re reading the botanist’s notes, the pain disappears. Or else, depending on your leaning, the pain appears, to disappear when you are done reading.

You will not find this word exactly as such in Wikipedia. The English pronunciation has trumped the etymology, and Latinate endings have trumped the Greek; it’s in there as Zanthoxylum.

The plant comes in a few different kinds. I will allow one more observation from our 1830 botanist – an observation that presents an acrimony that unfolds gradually:

This genus, whose name means yellow wood, and which many botanists write Zanthoxylum by mistake, has many anomalies, because accuracy appears of very little moment to the Linnaean botanists.

3 responses to “xanthoxylon

  1. We had these growing in the fencerows in rural East Texas where i grew up. We didnt lnow what they were called so we called them tickle tongue bark trees. We would cut a little slice of the bark off and put it on our tongue and it would make it tingle. And i do remember the yellow wood umder the bark.

  2. The author describes “a citrusy smell and taste”. The tree is in the Rutaceae family. The citrus family.

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