Sunday, September 23, 2018

Spices and herbs, Part 9: Eng. bay leaf & Sp. laurel

[This entry is an excerpt from Chapter 47, "Spices and herbs", of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]


Eng. bay leaf and Sp. laurel


In English, bay leaf [ˈbeɪ̯.ˈlif], also spelled bayleaf and bay-leaf, is primarily the name for the dried leaves of several plants of the Lauraceae or laurel family, primarily true laurel or bay laurel with the botanical name Laurus nobilis, which are used in cooking. The bay tree is ‘an aromatic evergreen tree or large shrub with green, glossy leaves, native to the Mediterranean region’.[i] In English, bay or bay-tree is the traditional name of the shrub from where the leaves come, a word that comes from Old English beġ ‘berry, a small fruit, esp. used of that of the laurel or bay-tree’ (the original meaning of this word is now obsolete). The Spanish word for the bay shrub is laurel, just like for the leaves (see below).
Figure 165: Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) flower buds and leaves[ii]

Do note that this word bay [ˈbeɪ̯] is not related to five other homophonous English words. First, there is another English word bay in English that refers to ‘an indentation of the sea into the land with a wide opening’ (OED). This word comes from Fr. baie (c. 1400), from Late Latin baia, of unknown origin. Actually, bahía is the Spanish word for a small bay. The word for a large bay is golfo, as in Golfo de Bizkaia ‘Bay of Biscay’.

There is another English word bay used in architecture whose main meanings are ‘a part of a building marked off by vertical elements, such as columns or pilasters: an arcade divided into ten bays’, ‘an opening or recess in a wall’ (cf. bay window) and, derived from that meaning, ‘a section or compartment, as in a service station, barn, or aircraft, that is set off for a specific purpose’ (cf. sick bay, loading bay) (AHD). This word comes from Old Fr. baie, a noun derived from the verb baer ‘to gape, stand open’, from Medieval Lat. batare or Vulgar Latin *badare, meaning ‘to gape, to have one’s mouth wide open’, which is thought to be of imitative origin. There isn’t one word in Spanish to cover all these senses of this word bay. In architecture, this bay may translate into Spanish as hueco or nicho. As for common expressions containing this word bay, a bay window is called ventana saliente, sick bay translates as enfermería, loading bay as zona de carga or cargadero, parking bay as area de estacionamiento (among other possible options), and bus bay as dársena or parada de autobús.

Another English word bay is primarily a verb that means to ‘bark or howl loudly, especially in pursuit of quarry’ (COED). The associated homonymous noun bay means ‘the sound of baying’. These words come from Old French bayer or abayer ‘to bark’, a word that is thought to be derived from the same Vulgar Latin verb *badāre that we just saw. They translate into Spanish as aullar and aullido, the same words used for to howl and howling, ultimately from Lat. ŭlŭlāre ‘to howl, yell, shriek, utter a mournful cry’ (L&S). Today, this word bay is mostly found in expressions such as to be at bay (Sp. estar acorralado/a) and to hold/keep (something or somebody) at bay (Sp. mantener a raya/contener (a algo o alguien)). Note that the word bay in these expressions refers to the position of the barking dog, not to the barking.

Finally, another word bay is an adjective and noun used to refer to a ‘reddish-brown’ color and ‘a reddish-brown animal, especially a horse having a black mane and tail’ (AHD). This word comes from the Latin adjective bădĭus ‘brown, chestnut-colored (rare; only of horses)’ (L&S). English borrowed it from Fr. bai ‘bay colored’ in the mid-14th century. Spanish has a cognate of this word, namely the patrimonial word bayo, which means ‘whitish yellow, cream-colored’ first attested in the 10th century, and used in the expressions such as caballo bayo ‘bay (horse)’, yegua baya ‘bay mare’, and bayo oscuro ‘dark bay color’. (As you can see, the colors represented by these words in English and Spanish are similar, but not the same.)[1]

Going back now to the word for the bay leaf herb, we find that in Spanish, the name of the bay plant as well as for the bay leaves, is laurel [lau̯.ˈɾel], which is an alternate name for this plant and leaf in English as well, as we have seen, where it is typically pronounced [ˈlɔ.ɹəl] in North America and [ˈlɒ.ɹəl] in Britain. The origin of this word laurel in English and Spanish can be traced back to Old Occitan laurier (borrowed into Old French as lorier). This Occitan word was derived from a more basic word laur, which descends from Lat. laurus ‘bay-tree, laurel-tree, laurel’. The laurel plant was sacred to the Roman god Apollo and it had great symbolism in Roman life:

In festivals, the ancestral images were decorated with laurel... The leaves, when eaten, were said to impart the power of prophesying… Victorious generals, in triumphal processions, wore laurel crowns on their heads and carried laurel branches in their hands, while their lictors bore fasces bound with laurel…. Before the gate of the imperial palace stood two laurel-trees, with oaken crowns, in honor of the emperor, as the vanquisher of foes and the people's preserver… A wet branch of laurel was used in lustrations, to sprinkle the objects to be purified. (L&S)

Laurel wreaths or crowns, mentioned in the preceding paragraph, were symbols of victory and of honor in the Greek and Roman traditions, awarded to successful generals, athletes, and poets. The expression laurel wreath can be defined as ‘a ring of laurel leaves that was worn on the head in the past as a sign of victory’ (OALD). The Spanish equivalent of laurel wreath is corona de laureles.

Figure 166: Ovid with laurel wreath, common in poets[ii]

One of the honors that the Roman Senate conveyed upon Julius Caesar was that he was allowed to wear a laurel wreath at all times. Although it is not used much in recent times, the laurel wreath has become a common engraving motif in architecture and furniture in the Western world. It is also sometimes found in heraldry, going back to the emblem of the Roman Republic. Both English and Spanish have similar idiomatic expressions that contain this word: Eng. to rest on one’s laurels ~ Sp. dormirse en los laureles. Their meaning is ‘to be so satisfied with what one has already achieved that one makes no further effort’ (OD). There are other less common phrases that use the plural noun laurels, with the same meaning ‘fame, glory, renown’, such as win one’s laurels, retire on one’s laurels, and look to one’s laurels ‘to beware of losing one’s pre-eminence’ (OED).

If there was a patrimonial descendant of the Latin word laurus in Spanish, there is no record of it. (Lat. laurus would have turned into Sp. *loro, which is not attested.)[2]  There is an early variant of the word laurel in Spanish, namely lorer, which probably came from the Catalan version llorer of Occitan laurier. Remember that this plant is associated with the Mediterranean and so it is not surprising that the word for it comes from Mediterranean Romance languages such as Occitan and Catalan, two closely related languages (cf. Part I, Chapter 3, §3.5 and Chapter 13, §13.2). The change of a second r to l is very common in the history of the Spanish language (cf. Part I, Chapter 10, §10.4.5). Finally, we should mention that there is an alternative name for the plant (not the leaf) in Spanish, namely the learned lauro, borrowed directly from Lat. laurus, by only changing the inflectional ending. This word, however, is very rare.

English has an adjective laureate [ˈlɔɹ.i.ət] derived from the name of this plant and related to the fact that Roman victors and important people were adorned with laurel crowns. It comes from the Latin adjective laurĕātus, which meant ‘crowned with laurels (a laurel crown)’. This adjective was derived from the noun laurĕa ‘a laurel garland, crown of laurel, laurel branch, bay wreath (a symbol of victory)’ (CTL). The Spanish equivalent cognate is laureado/a, which is related to the verb laurear ‘to award a prize to’ and (in the military) ‘to decorate’. In English, we find the word laureate in phrases such as poet laureate (Sp. poeta laureado/a) and Nobel laureate (Sp. premio Nobel).[3]

In English, though not in Spanish, Laurel is also personal name, one derived from the name of the plant and leaf. Originally, it was a unisex name, used as a first name for both men and women, but it stopped being used for men by the mid-30’s in the US. As often happens with originally unisex names, Laurel has become a merely female name today.[4]

Related to the name Laurel, is the name Laura, in both English and Spanish. This is a feminized form of Lat. laurus, the name for the sacred Roman plant. It is pronounced [ˈlɔ.ɹə] in English and [ˈlau̯.ɾa] in Spanish. This is an extremely popular woman’s name in many European countries as other countries colonized by them (it was even more popular in the US before the 20th century). The name Laura is found with the same spelling (and various pronunciations) in the following languages: Catalan, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian (Лаура), Slovak, Slovene, Spanish, and Swedish. Variant spellings include Greek Λάουρα (Laoura), French Laure, Turkish Lara, and Welsh Lowri.

Other variants of the names Laura and Laurel in English include Lauren, Lauryn, Loren, Lorena, Laurie, Loretta, and Lori for women, and Laurence or Lawrence for men (GB [ˈlɒɹəns], US [ˈlɔɹəns]). These names derive from the Latin names Laurentius for men and Laurentia for women. Originally, the meaning of this Latin name was ‘from Laurentum’, which was a city near Rome or, else,  ‘laurelled’ (see above). Its Spanish equivalents are Lorenzo (earlier Lorencio) and Lorenza. Actually, English Lauren was originally a unisex name. Cognates male names in other languages include Catalan Llorenç, French Laurent, Italian Lorenzo (also Enzo, Loris, and Renzo), Norwegian and Swedish Lars (among others). Eng. Larrie, Larry, Laurie, Laz and Loren are common diminutives for this name. Some of these English names, such as Lori, may also be hypocoristics of the name Lorraine in addition to Laura and Lauren.[5]

Finally, going back to the plant, we should mention that besides true bay laurel (bay-leaf), there are other plants that go by the same name. Another species of the Lauraceae family whose leaf is called bay leaf is California bay leaf, the leaf of the California bay tree, also known as Oregon myrtle. This plant’s botanical name is Umbellularia californica, the sole species of the genus Umbellularia. Other names for this plant are pepperwood, spicebush, cinnamon bush, peppernut tree, and mountain laurel, among others. Although the tree is unrelated, its leaves have a flavor that is similar to that of laurel and hence its name. The most common Spanish name for this plant is laurel de California.

The are other leaves that have received the name bay-leaf in English besides true laurel (Laurus nobilis). One is Indian bay leaf, a term that may refer to leaves of either Cinnamomum tamala (also known as malabathrum or tejpatta), a tree of the Lauraceae family that is native to India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and China; or to Syzygium polyanthum (also known as Indonesian bay-leaf or Indonesian laurel), a plant of the Myrtaceae family, native to Indochina and Malaysia. Another plant that has been equated to bay-leaf because of the culinary properties of its leaves is Mexican bay leaf (Litsea glaucescens), an evergreen tree or shrub of the genus Litsea in the Lauraceae family. This plant has been used extensively for culinary and medicinal purposes and is currently in danger of extinction. Finally, West Indian bay leaf (Pimenta racemosa) is a plant of the myrtle family (Myrtaceae), native to the Caribbean region (other names for this plant are bay rum tree and ciliment). Its leaves have been used in cooking and, mixed with rum, for making a cologne and aftershave lotion called bay rum.



[1] The Spanish word bayeta ‘cloth, dishcloth’ (first documented in 1601) is a loan from Old French baiette, which may be derived from the same French word bai for the color.

[2] There is a Spanish word loro ‘parrot’, but this is a loanword from the language of the Carib people of South America (Province of Tierra Firme, or Mainland province), who called this bird roro. (English parrot is of uncertain origin. Perhaps it comes from French Perrot, variant of Pierrot, diminutive of the name Pierre ‘Peter’.)

[3] In English, poet laureate was originally used in England for ‘a poet appointed for life by a British monarch as a member of the royal household and expected to write poems celebrating occasions of national importance and honoring the royal family’ (AHD). The first Poet Laureate in Britain was Ben Jonson (1616). In North America this expression is used mostly for ‘a person whose poetry is considered to be the best, or most typical of their country or region’ (AHD). The United States has had Poets Laureate since 1986, the first one being Robert Penn Warren. They are appointed by the Library of Congress and they serve for one or two years.

[4] Other classic unisex names in English include: Addison, Angel, Ashley, Aubrey, Dana, Ellis, Francis, Robin, and Tracy. The notion of unisex first names has made a come back in recent time sin North America, resulting in names such as Dylan, Taylor, Morgan (Welsh), Logan (Scottish), Jesse, Jamie.

[5] Lorraine is the name of a region of France, originally the kingdom of the Frankish king Lothar, cf. German Lothringen, from Lat. Lothari regnum ‘Kingdom of Lothar’.


[ii] Source: By Auréola - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7654436

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