Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2015-05-30
A common fern here in the Pacific Northwest is Polypodium glycyrrhiza. The species part of the name, the word “glycyrrhiza,” ultimately comes from the Greek words for “sweet” and “root.” The root of the fern produces, as the scientific name suggests, a sweet sensation on the tongue. But the path from taste to name probably doesn’t go directly through Greek. The sweet taste of the fern’s root has a strong licorice flavor–thus its common name “licorice fern”–and the plant from which we derive the licorice syrup that is used to flavor candies has the scientific name Glycyrrhiza glabra. Presumably the licorice connection led botanists to borrow the genus name of the licorice plant for the species name of the fern.
Although the connection can be a bit hard to spot, the word “licorice” derives from “glycyrrhiza.” Drop the initial “g” from “glycyrrhiza” and the derivation becomes clearer. When David B goes to the local confiserie to order his expensive Dutch licorice drops, he probably uses the French word for licorice, “réglisse.” The OED says that “réglisse” and its cognates in the other romance languages are also derived from “glycyrrhiza,” via metathesis.
The spelling “licorice” is a North American contrivance. In Britain the name of the plant, syrup, and candy is “liquorice.” In this case the Brits have history on their side, but not reason: history because the word traces from a late Latin “liquiritia;” not reason, because it seems almost certain that “liquiritia,” like , is a medieval eggcorn, with the name of the plant being confounded, compounded, and confused with the Latin “liquor” stem, the source of our words for “liquid” and “liquor.” In changing the spelling to “licorice,” North Americans have shelved the eggcornical changes that their British forebears took over from French and Latin sources. Which goes to show that children are not always wrong and their parents always right.
I’d rather those were Sambuca drops or some other liquorish licorice liqueur. Does anyone pronounce licorice as it’s written?
Great post, Kem, really interesting. I’m a bit confused by the fact that glycy means “sweet”, but I guess there is hypoglycemia as handy evidence. However, these days on my way to the confiserie, I need to think constantly about glissant, since the sidewalks are coated with a layer of what the locals call “slutch”. And glisser seems to appear there in réglisse. So in my mind it’s hard not to forget the sweetness and focus on the slipperiness, as in glycerine.
Thanks for the etymology lesson, Kem. As a member of the Lakritz family, I can’t help but be interested!
Since Greek upsilon often becomes u in English, you can see glucose (a sugar) in glycy as further evidence.
I sometimes hear the final syllable of licorice pronounced “iss”, and it always seems to be an affectation.
“I always wanted to be somebody. I should have been more specific.” – Lily Tomlin
I’ve always thought that the “iss” pronunciation was mainly British, “ish” AmEng. Apparently the divide lies along a time scale rather than an ocean expanse, with “ish” kicking out the traditional “iss” even in GB. See for a fascinating chart.