Here’s flowers for you;
Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram;
The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ the sun,
And with him rises weeping: these are flowers
Of middle summer, and I think they are given
To men of middle age. You’re very welcome.
That’s from The Winter’s Tale, by Shakespeare. I must report that I have not lately been given any of the above. But I did buy some marjoram recently. Not the flowers, or even the whole herb; the dried and ground kind. I used a bit of it to season some pörkölt (along with a quarter cup of paprika).
Marjoram is a soft, mild, sweet herb, with a flavour that hints of camomile or perhaps… hmm… like another herb, but without an edge… what is it…
I’ve been aware of marjoram since I was a small child. It was one of the crowd of tins and jars of dried herbs that filled a large drawer in my mother’s kitchen, most of them made by Empress. Paprika, cayenne (the mildest cayenne I’ve ever met), oregano, rosemary, basil, thyme… these are all well-known, commonly used spices. Cumin, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, coriander. So many more, a domestic armamentarium. And marjoram in there with them, like someone everybody recognizes, everybody thinks they know, but few can tell you much about, few have really spent much time with. Sweet and quiet.
Sweet marjoram. Sounds like it should be a girl’s name, no? Margaret, Margery, Marjoram. She could be friends with Rosemary and her brother Basil. If she were French she probably would be; French for marjoram is marjolaine, and Marjolaine is a common enough name for a woman in French. It takes just that little difference between ram and laine (ask my good friend Eram about that, I mean Elaine).
How did that little difference come about? The Latin name for the herb was maiorana, though it does not seem to come from maior (also spelled major), ‘greater’. The French took that at first as majorane, and then marjolaine, duplicating the r before the j and then dissimilating the second r to l. English grabbed it somewhere in that process before the dissimilation and then mirrored the final nasal to the first, giving us an almost symmetrical word, marjoram (if it were marjoran it would sound too much now like a spread for bread).
The name is not used quite consistently either. In English we have it pretty much nailed down, but for clarity we may call it sweet marjoram (a name Shakespeare used in other places). It can also be called pot marjoram (and I think if you light it on fire it may smell rather like pot – you know, maryjane). It has a sister – well, it has several sisters, but it has a well-known, widely used one, in some places called wild marjoram and in some just called marjoram. We, however, call it oregano.
Ah! Oregano! Such a popular herb, but it can be so bitter. It lends flavour readily and even dominantly, but if you have too much it gets too sharp. If you could take away that sharp bitterness, though, I suppose it would be a bit less popular – everyone would know it but they wouldn’t use it as often. It would be more… marginal.
It would be marjoram.