Monday, October 8, 2018

Spices and herbs, Part 16: Eng. clove and Sp. clavo

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

Go to the listing of entries on spices, herbs and other condiments

Eng. clove and Sp. clavo

The English word clove refers to ‘an evergreen tree ([botanical name:] Syzygium aromaticum) native to the Moluccas and widely cultivated in warm regions for its aromatic dried flower buds’ and to the ‘flower bud of this plant, used whole or ground as a spice’ (AHD). The clove buds are harvested before they open and dried. They are used either whole or ground as a spice in cooking, though ground cloves soon lose their flavor. Cloves are used in small quantities due to their strong flavor, which comes primarily from the aromatic compound eugenol, an essential oil also found in nutmeg and cinnamon, for example. This plant has also been used for medicinal purposes, such as toothache pain and for inflammation more generally. Clove used for health purposes typically comes in the form of clove oil, which is eugenol extracted and concentrated from the plant. Finally, cloves are also used mixed with tobacco and other ingredients in cigarettes known as kreket or clove cigarettes that are common in Indonesia.

Figure 187: Cloves: dried flower buds of the clove plant.[i]

The word clove is typically used in the plural, that is, as cloves. Other names for this spice are clove-gillyflower or clove-pink, though these names are now used primarily for ‘a clove-scented species of Pink (Dianthus caryophyllus), the original of the carnation and other cultivated double forms’ (OED).[1] As we shall see below, the clove and the carnation were thought to be related plants.

The clove plant species belongs to the myrtle (Myrtaceae) family. As for the place this plant is native to, the Moluccas, they are ‘a group of islands in Indonesia, between Sulawesi (Celebes) and New Guinea’, also known as Molucca Islands or Spice Islands (RHWU).

The word clove [ˈkloʊ̯v] is derived from Old French phrase clou de girofle, literally ‘nail of gillyflower’, a name inspired by the shape of the dried flower bud, which looks like a nail, that is, like a metal nail for hammering, not for fingernail or toenail, which is the original meaning of the word nail in English, a word that descends from Proto-Germanic *naglaz.

As for the English word gillyflower (or gilliflower) [ˈʤɪ.lɪ.ˌflaʊ̯ɹ], it refers to ‘the carnation or a similar plant of the genus Dianthus’, in particular the Clove Pink (Dianthus caryophyllus), the ancestor of the carnation, but also to ‘any of several plants, such as the wallflower [genus Erysimum, with hundreds of species], that have fragrant flowers’ (AHD). There isn’t a single Spanish word for all the flowers that in English go by the name of gillyflower, though two common ones are clavel silvestre ‘lit. wild carnation’ and clavellina, a word derived from clavel ‘carnation’. The word clavel for the carnation flower in Spanish seems to come from Old Catalan clavell ‘(fastening) nail’, a word that has, thus, the same root as the English word clove. The reason for this name is that the carnation flower has a smell like that of the clove spice, which as we saw has the shape of a (fastening) nail, although as we have seen we now know that the two plants are not related.[2]

The Spanish name of this spice (the dried flowers of the clove plant) is clavo, clavo de olor, or clavo de especia. This clavo is the same word as the word clavo for ‘nail’, in the sense ‘metal spike’ or ‘fastening nail’, not the sense of ‘fingernail’ or ‘toenail’, for which Spanish has a separate word, namely uña.[3] Both Sp. clavo and Fr. clou come from Lat. clāvus, with the same meaning, ‘(fastening) nail’, though originally it meant ‘a callous growth, a corn, wart, tumor, excrescence’. As we just saw, the word clavo for this spice is typically modified by adding the phrase de olor ‘lit. of smell’ or de especia ‘lit. of spice’, to differentiate this meaning of clavo from the more common one. As for the clove tree, it goes by different names in Spanish, such as árbol del clavo, clavero, and even giroflé (also jiroflé), the latter being a word derived from the French word for ‘clove’ and the source of Eng. gillyflower.

The English word gillyflower, first attested in the mid-16th century, is a loanword from French gilofre ‘clove plant’, an alteration from Old French girofle. The ‑flower part of the English name is obviously based on a mis-interpretation of the last part of the original French name. This French word came down from Late Latin gariofilum, a name that presumably comes from Latin caryophyllus, a compound name for both the plant and for its dried flower that was presumably formed from Ancient Greek words, κάρυον (káruon) ‘nut’ and φύλλον (phúllon) ‘leaf’. Caryophyllus is the New Latin word for the early botanists’ name for two genera of plants related to clove and carnation, which used to be thought to be related but which we now know are from different genera: Syzygium, of the Myrtaceae family (where clove belongs), and Dianthus, of the Caryophyllaceae family (where carnation and many other plants belong). Nowadays, the botanical name for the clove plant is Syzygium aromaticum (formerly Caryophyllus aromatica), and the one for the carnation or clove pink is Dianthus caryophyllus.

Let us look now at the botanical name of the clove plant, Syzygium aromaticum. The first part is the genus name Syzygium, shared by 1200-1800 species of flowering plants of the myrtle family (Myrtaceae), most of which are evergreen trees and shrubs. This is a New Latin word, an alteration of Late Latin sȳzygia ‘conjunction, union’, a loanword from the Greek noun συζυγία (suzugía), derived from the adjective σύζυγος (súzugos) ‘yoked together’, a word formed from συ (su), a variant of συν (sun) ‘together’ which is commonly found in English words spelled as syn‑, and ζυγός (zugós) ‘yoke, pair’. Latin sȳzygia has been borrowed into English as syzygy [ˈsɪz.ɪ.ʤi], a technical term used in astronomy, psychology, mathematics, medicine, zoology, and genetics. Its general meaning is ‘a pair of connected or corresponding things’ (COED. In astronomy, for example, syzygy means ‘conjunction or opposition, especially of the moon with the sun’ (COED). The Spanish version of this word is sizigia, a word that is found in the DLE with only the astronomical meaning.

As for the second part of the clove plant’s botanical name, aromaticum, this is the neuter form of the Latin adjective aromaticus, source of the cognates Eng. aromatic ~ Sp. aromático/a, which mean ‘having an aroma; fragrant or sweet-smelling’, as in aromatic herbs (Sp. hierbas aromáticas). These loanwords come into English and Spanish probably through French but ultimately it comes from Latin ărōmătĭcus, itself a loan from Greek ἀρωματικός (arōmatikós), an adjective derived from the noun ἄρωμα (árōma) ‘seasoning, spicy and/or fragrant smell’ (cf. Eng. aroma & Sp. aroma).

There is also different word clove in English which has the meaning ‘any of the small bulbs making up a compound bulb of garlic, shallot, etc.’, as in clove of garlic. The origin of the two words clove in English is the same Latin word and it has to do with the shape of the two items it refers to, which is like that of a nail or what was the original meaning of the Latin word clāvus, namely ‘hard excrescence’. In Spanish the second sense of the English word clove translates as diente ‘tooth’, as in diente de ajo ‘a clove of garlic’.

[1] The noun pink is used for ‘various species of Dianthus (family Caryophyllaceæ)’, especially Dianthus plumarius and ‘with qualifying words’ such as clove-basil, clove-brown, and clove-pink, it is used to refer ‘to other species of Dianthus, and to other plants allied to or resembling the pink’ (OED). The origin of this word pink is unknown, though there are various theories.

[2] The source of the English word carnation for ‘the cultivated varieties of the clove-pink (Dianthus caryophyllus)’ is not totally clear. Some think it comes from Lat. carnātĭo ‘fleshiness, corpulency’ (regular stem: carnātĭōn‑), derived from the noun caro (gen. carnis, acc. carnem) ‘flesh, meat; flesh of a fruit; etc.’ (cf. Sp. carne ‘flesh, meat’, derived from the accusative form of the Latin word carnem).  Eng. carnation could also come indirectly from the Italian descendant of this Latin word, carnagione, which meant ‘the hew or color of ones skin and flesh’, after a typical color of this flower. The OED, however, thinks that Eng. carnation most likely comes from Lat. coronation: ‘Some 16th cent. authors give one form of the name as coronation, apparently from its 16th cent. specific name, Betonica coronaria, in allusion to its use in chaplets (compare campion n.2), or from ‘the floures…dented or toothed to a littell crownet’ (Lyte). On the other hand, Turner calls the plant an incarnacyon, Lyte has carnation as well as coronation, and Gerarde expressly identifies it with the colour ‘carnation’. Prior takes coronation as the original form, and Britten and Holland think his opinion ‘probably correct’’ (OED). The reason for this name would be that carnations were one of the flowers used in flower garlands used in Greek ceremonial crowns.

[3] This other sense of the English word nail, namely ‘fingernail’ or ‘toenail’, is uña in Spanish. This word comes from Lat. ungula ‘claw, hoof, talon’, which is itself derived from Lat. unguis ‘finger/toe nail’; cf. Eng. ungulate ‘a hoofed mammal’, a technical term in Zoology.

[i] Source: “Gewuerznelken”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

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