There are some words that we pull out of our linguistic spice cupboard like an old yellowed tin we’ve seen in the bottom drawer so long we can’t remember the occasion of its acquisition but by golly we gotta use it sometime to add flavour to a text. OK, we’re not quite sure how it should be used, but give it here, let’s have a go. I like to think of them as turmeric words, though turmeric is not really such a word. I will explain.

When my age was in the lower double digits, I enjoyed familiarizing myself with the couple dozen herbs and spices jammed into a drawer in my mother’s kitchen in their squared Empress tins and round faceted McCormick’s jars. I enjoyed finding uses for them, sometimes in food and sometimes for other things (we shall not speak of my raids on them to make sneezing powder or itching powder). Turmeric in particular caught my attention.

Why did it catch my attention? Probably because it had an odd name I was not familiar with, and I really wasn’t sure what it was used for. I tasted it. I decided it could be good in a sandwich. I made ham and cheese sandwiches for my lunch and added some turmeric. I found they didn’t taste quite right. I adjusted the ingredients of the sandwich. Still not quite right. Finally my mother suggested to me that the reason the sandwich was tasting not quite right might be the turmeric. She was, of course, quite right.

And so it is with some words that writers see here and there and fancy might be apt, and when the prose doesn’t quite work they can’t quite see the reason it has turned not meritorious but meretricious. It’s like an article of clothing you buy that you really want to work somehow but never quite does with anything else you have, and when you insist on wearing it you always look a bit… off.

Turmeric actually does work well with other things, mind you, if you know how to use it. It’s an important ingredient in curry. But it’s less used, flavour-wise, as a stand-alone. When it is used as a stand-alone, it imparts excellent colour. Indeed, a simple solution of it, poured on a formica countertop, will leave a yellow stain that will still be there the day the house is demolished or burns flat. Take my word on this. Turmeric was used to colour clothing and other things even before it was used to flavour food. Like many other old herbs, turmeric has also been used for health effects, to treat an assortment of different conditions.

Turmeric, the spice, is made from a root, or more precisely a rhizome; the plant is related to ginger. Turmeric, the word, comes from some kind of root or roots too, but it has not been handled very gingerly. In fact, as with many uncommon words from unfamiliar sources, it has been modified to taste on the basis of conjecture and what we think it should be, as we see in citations in the Oxford English Dictionary since the 1500s: it appears as tarmaret, turmirick, tormarith, turn-merick, turmerocke, tamarnick, tamarluk, and at last – by the late 1700s – turmeric.

It probably came to have the –ic ending by analogy with arsenic and other such old linguistic lace. The evidence is that tarmaret and tormerith are likely closer to the source, which is believed to be Latin terra merita, which one might translate to ‘earth of merit’ or ‘earth of deserving’ (turmeric is not much used in desserts, so it seems to be just deserts). The Latin name for the actual plant is curcuma, which comes from Persian-Arabic kurkum, ‘saffron’ (because of the colour, not the flavour), but no one has come up with a plausible chain of transformation from curcuma to turmeric.

So be it. We’ve taken it, we have it, we use it – occasionally. We don’t always know how to use it. But we feel like we should, anyway, just because it’s there. It merits a turn.

4 responses to “turmeric

  1. Turmeric is used frequently in at least half the dishes we consume everyday, as in pulses, curries etc. Plus it was used widely in potions and lotions for injuries both internal and external, in the ancient times —it is still the staple fallback remedy in the backwaters out here. I wasn’t aware of its troublesome etymology however!

  2. How should the word be pronounced? In Australia I mostly hear tyumeric, rarely turmeric.

    • That’s something else I should have addressed: Along with the varied spelling, it’s gotten varied pronunciation. I have heard quite a lot of people say it “tyumeric” – I’d guess it’s a dissimilation to avoid repeating /r/, but it could be by analogy with tumour, I suppose.

  3. David Milne-Ives

    Yet another entry that resonates; it put me in mind of my (so) imperfect youth, when I ‘knew’ that ‘taut’ was spelled (and pronounced) ‘taunt’, that ‘ubiquitous’ meant ‘all-purpose’, that ‘turmeric’ was really spelled and pronounced ‘tumeric’… and that ‘meretricious’ was more closely related to merit that mendacity. Good to know how fundamentally appropriate it is to be humble – although in my heart of hearts I still feel that ‘taunt’ conveys the tension of ‘taut’ far more compellingly than the correct term does.

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