Saturday, November 24, 2007
The gift also piqued my curiosity about horehound, in particular the etymology of the word and the use of the herb.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives the following etymology of horehound:
OE. háre húne, f. hár hoar, hoary + húne name of a plant, of uncertain origin; thence ME. hôrhowne, altered by popular etymology to horehound, which puts some appearance of meaning into the second element. The analogical spelling is hoar-, but this is much less usual in England than hore-.I haven't seen John A.C. Greppin, "A Note on the Etymology of English Horehound," in Dorothy Disterheft et al., edd., Studies in Honor of Jaan Puhvel, Part 1: Ancient Languages and Philology (Washington, 1997), pp. 71-74. Anatoly Liberman, An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), scheduled for release on Dec. 21, 2007, supposedly has a detailed discussion of the etymology of horehound.
Let's look at the hoary part of horehound first. Hoar and hoary mean "gray or white with age," and W.W. Skeat, An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, s.v. hoarhound, cites Johns, Flowers of the Field, for the proposition that horehound got its name because its stem is "covered with white wooley down." But the 17th century English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper says that the "crumpled rough leaves" of horehound have "a sullen hoary green colour." Similarly Thoreau, Journal (Oct. 22, 1855), refers to "the pale whitish leaves of horehound," and so perhaps the name arose not from the stem but from the gray-green leaves. The flowers are also white.
As for the OED's statement that popular etymology put "some appearance of meaning into the second element," I wonder if that meaning was helped along by the belief that horehound helped cure dog bites. Culpeper says, "The green leaves bruised, and boiled in old hog's grease into an ointment, healeth the bitings of dogs," and this belief goes back at least as far as Antonius Castor, one of Pliny the Elder's sources for Natural History 20.89 (tr. John Bostock and H.T. Riley): "Beaten up, too, with stale axle-grease and applied topically, he says, horehound is a cure for the bite of a dog."
The scientific name of horehound is Marrubium vulgare. Isidore of Seville (Etymologies, 17.58, tr. Stephen A. Barney) says:
Horehound (marrubium), which the Greeks call πράσιον, is so called because of its bitterness (amaritudo).There is no connection to amaritudo, but Isidore is probably right that it "is so called because of its bitterness." The consensus is that Latin marrubium is related etymologically to Hebrew marror or maror, the bitter herbs eaten on Passover.
People also make tea and a kind of ale from horehound. Despite its medicinal properties, it is considered a weed in many parts of the world.