Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Spices and herbs, Part 17: Eng. cumin and Sp. comino

[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. cumin and Sp. comino

The English word cumin and its Spanish cognate comino refer to ‘an annual Mediterranean herb … in the parsley family, having finely divided leaves and clusters of small white or pink flowers’, as well as to ‘the seed-like fruit of this plant used for seasoning, as in curry and chili powders’ (AHD). This annual herbaceous plant of the celery, carrot and parsley family (the family name is known botanically as Apiaceae or Umbelliferae). It is native to a region between the Middle East and India. Its botanical name is Cuminum cyminum, a name given to the plant by Linnaeus himself (or its equivalent, Cuminum odorum).

Figure 188: Cumin seeds and cumin powder[i]

The dried seed of this plant, either whole or ground, has been used as a condiment since ancient times in Indian, Persian, Greek, and Roman cuisines, and today it is common in Mexican cuisine as well, for instance. It is used in many food products, including chili powder, curry, and even cheese, bread, and pickles. The flavor and aroma of this seed comes from its essential oils, the main one of which is cuminaldehyde. There are different varieties of cumin in the market that differ somewhat in flavor and other characteristics: Iranian, Indian, and Middle Eastern. Nowadays the main producers of this seed are China and India, which India consuming more than half of the world production. But cumin is also often added to chili powder and used in Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking. In some countries, this seed is also used for medicinal purposes in the ethnomedicine of different cultures, though scientific research on such applications is just now under way.[ii]

The English word cumin was borrowed from Latin in the Old English period. It is pronounced in different ways. The main one is [ˈkʰju.mɪn], but the word cumin is also pronounced [ˈkʰʌ.mɪn] in the UK and [ˈkʰu.mɪn] in the US. Spanish comino, a word first attested in the 13th century, would seem to be a patrimonial descendant of the Latin word for this plant, which was cŭmīnum or cymīnum (the change of Latin short ŭ to Spanish o is what we would expect in a patrimonial word). In other Romance languages we find Italian cumino, Portuguese cominho, French cumin (Old French cumin or comin), and Catalan comí. This Latin word was a loan from Ancient Greek κύμινον (kúminon) and its ultimate source is presumably a Semitic word, one that is cognate with Hebrew כמון (kammon) and Arabic كمون (kammūn).

Some European languages, in particular Slavic and Uralic ones, use the same word for cumin as for caraway, another spice seed, though they come from different plants of the same family (Apiaceae or Umbelliferae). In Spanish, caraway is known as alcaravea, but one of its other names is comino de prado, ‘lit. meadow cumin’. Other distantly related plants of the Apiaceae family sometimes also go by the name cumin, including Persian cumin, which is another name for caraway, and black cumin, which can be used to refer to two different types of seeds from much less common, different plants: Bunium bulbocastanum and Nigella sativa (fennel flower), both also known as black caraway.

In the Spanish-speaking world, this plant doesn’t seem to have been held in high regard. There is a very common Spanish idiomatic phrase containing this word, namely (No) me importa un comino ‘I (don’t) give a damn’, as in Me importa un comino lo que piense la gente ‘I don’t give a damn what people think’. Other variants of this expression are no valer un comino and no montar un comino. The Spanish noun comino is also used in some regions to refer to small-sized or young people (children), and it can be used in either a loving way or a disparaging way.

As for the botanical name for this plant, Cuminum cyminum, given to the plant by Linnaeus himself, we can see that it consists of two different versions of the same word, the Latin name for this plant: cŭmīnum for the genus name and cymīnum for the species name. (The Greek letter ύ〉 was typically transliterated into Latin as 〈y〉, but occasionally it was nativized as 〈u〉; however the two letters have the same origin, cf. Part I, Chapter 8, §8.2.5.) Originally, there was only one species of the genus Cuminum, but now there are three other accepted members of this genus.[iii]

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