Tag Archives: wymote

wymote, marshmallow

What’s a wymote? A marshmallow.

No, not the thing you roast on a stick or drop in your hot chocolate. The plant.

You didn’t know a marshmallow was a plant first? Yup, it was. Still is. Also written marsh-mallow or marsh mallow, because it’s the kind of mallow that grows in marshes.

But why mote it be that it be called wymote? Well, it’s like this. Wymote is a variant of wymalve. Why? “Unexplained,” says the Oxford English Dictionary, but anyway wymote is still in use and wymalve is not.

OK, but why wymalve? Because it came from popular Latin viscomalva, which was worn down from hibiscomalva, which was hibiscus plus malva. Viscomalva passed into Old French as vismauve, whence English wymalve and also modern French guimauve, which also translates ‘marshmallow’ the thing you eat (any Canadian should know that just from food-package French).

You know what hibiscus is and if you don’t I have no hope for you but look it up. What is malva? It’s the Latin word for ‘mallow’, the whole family of plants. The word mallow comes from it. Remember, although later Latin, especially as spoken by native speakers of later European languages, said consonantal v as /v/, classical Latin said it as /w/. So /malwa/ easily became mallow, while hibiscomalva ended up as wymalve and then wymote.

I did say, didn’t I, that there are many different mallows? There are. Two to three dozen. They include the musk-mallow, the French mallow (a.k.a. bull mallow), the Chinese mallow, the Brazilian mallow, the tree mallow, the low mallow, the small mallow, the dwarf mallow (also called buttonweed and cheeseplant), and the least mallow (also called cheeseweed – the indignity!). And, more remotely related, the marshmallow, which is part of a different genus – not Malva but Althæa.

You know those plants that grow in marshes that look like sticks with hot dogs or marshmallows on the ends? Yeah, those are bulrushes and have nothing to do with mallows. Sorry. Marshmallows, the plants, are pretty things with white flowers. They are edible. The flowers are edible. The stems are edible. The roots are edible. And if you cook the roots, you will find they contain starch, mucilage, pectin, flavonoids, and sucrose (among other things). Which means they’re great for using to make fluffy gooey confections with a bunch of fancy cooking and some more sugar and flavouring.

Which is how we came to call the confections marshmallows: because they’re made from them. Oops, sorry, they were made from them. Confectioners figured out how to make them more easily cheaply with sugar, water, starch, and gelatin (some versions also contain eggs). A key discovery in the history of marshmallows, made in the 1800s, is called the starch mogul system, not because someone who made them was a starch mogul (cf. movie moguls) but because the starch was formed into moguls sort of like how snow is formed into moguls by skiers. (See mogul for heaps more.) Another development – in 1954 – allowed marshmallow mixture to be extruded into long thick ropes and cut into segments. This led to the modern cylindrical pillows, so ready to be dissolved in chocolate or impaled and incinerated on an open flame, or some more options.

So a pretty white swamp flower has also become a pillowy edible, no longer using the original. And the malva – and althæa – has become both marshmallow and wymote. Nothing stays the same, but it’s all delicious in your mouth.


Are the words of English efflorescences or confections? Often enough, they are at least a bit of both. Consider wymote. It looks as though it could be an uncommon surname, or a speck (mote) joined to a small dragon (wyvern). It sounds like a semi-articulate protest from someone unable to approach a castle. What it really is is something more of a treat for the eyes and tongue.

It’s not often used, obviously. But the word it grew from is even less used today: wymalve. That word in turn seems to trace back to a conjecture Latin viscomalva, which would have come from hibiscomalva, formed in its turn from hibiscus (from Greek ἱβίσκος hibiskos) and malva (from Greek μαλάχη malakhé). It names a flowering plant, common enough in Europe, Althæa officinalis, of the family Malvaceæ. The Althæa comes from Greek ἄλθειν althein, verb, ‘heal’. And indeed it has long been used for medicinal purposes. Its roots (the plant’s, not the word’s) are quite comestible when cooked; they are fibrous, and can be used in halvah or processed into something more gelatinous. The French added egg white and sugar to this and produced a soft dessert item, which they named after the plant.

Oh, did I not mention the French name? It was formed from viscomalva and was in turn the source of wymalve. Its modern form is guimauve. If you have ever sat around a Canadian campfire, you have likely seen that word on some packaging, next to the English. The English name comes from the common name for Althæa officinalis: it is a kind of malva that sometimes grows in or near marshes; malva has become mallow over the centuries; put that together and you have marshmallow.

Just to add to the fun, there is no Althæa officinalis in the modern marshmallows (guimauves). Gelatin, sugar, water, maybe flavouring. Probably not even egg white. We have taken the name (the French have too) and walked away with it. And if you see the plant – which has pretty flowers but nothing on it resembling the food (cattails are closer in appearance) – you may or may not want to use the name with the confectionary overtones. If you’d rather give the plant a distinctive name, try wymote, which has, like the marshmallows you toast over an open fire (or in the flames of a small dragon), very little left in common with its origin – partly through natural efflorescence and perhaps partly through deliberate confection – and yet is quite palatable.