Turmeric By Any Other Name

The problem with turmeric is that I have a hard time pronouncing it. I’m one of those people whose vocabulary expanded through reading voraciously. There are many words that I know how to use and spell correctly, but their correct pronounciation continues to elude me. It doesn’t matter how many times someone has corrected me or I’ve used an online pronunciation tool. My original incorrect rendering overrides the new information. Often when I am teaching, I realize I want to use a particular word, but I’m not sure I’m going to say it correctly. Fortunately, the embarrassment this used to bring has long passed. I embrace my uncertainty and offer multiple renderings. I like to think that I’m modeling vulnerability for my students who also don’t know how to pronounce all the words. Hopefully I’m also giving those students who, like my spouse, somehow know how to pronounce all the words correctly, how to be gentle in corrections. Somehow, though, this really only works when I’m in the classroom. In other venues, I still feel embarrassed. So, turmeric troubled me. I wanted to tell everyone about this wonderful anti-inflammatory spice, but I hesitated to speak its name. Why couldn’t it just have one of those simple folksy names, like Orange Root or something like that?

As I’ve been learning about herbals, I’ve noticed that many of them have multiple

Turmeric powder. Image source: Sanjay Acharya, Wikimedia.

names. There is the Latin botanical name, of course. But then there are a variety of common names that have been used in different times or places. This was one of the things that made Culpeper’s volume so infuriating to the medical establishment when it was published in the 16th century; he not only had translated the information about the properties and uses of medicinals into the English vernacular, but he also had juxtaposed the common names with the Latin. In doing so, he had given regular people the means to treat their own ailments rather than ensuring their reliance on physicians and apothecaries. But turmeric isn’t in Culpeper as it is not indigenous to the British isles. Moreover, I had only ever seen turmeric called turmeric. Now that I was thinking about it, I realized that was true of many of the non-European-originating herbs. Ginkgo. Ginseng. Astralagus. Cinnamon. I found myself wondering about the origins of the names. These are clearly not the original names. So where did they come from?The short answer, once the question has been asked, is pretty obvious: colonialism.

I’m not disputing the utility of a uniform system of naming plants so that botanists can ensure they all know what plant the others are talking about. Given that Latin was the language of choice for most academic, scientific, and official correspondence during the Age of (European) Exploration, I understand why and how it was and continues to be the scientific nomenclature. But how did Curcuma longa become turmeric?

Turmeric-the-plant seems to have been indigenous originally to the Indian subcontinent. According to writer Tori Avey:

In Indian culture, the importance of turmeric goes far beyond medicine. The Hindu religion sees turmeric as auspicious and sacred. There is a wedding day tradition in which a string, dyed yellow with turmeric paste, is tied around the bride’s neck by her groom. This necklace, known as a mangala sutra, indicates that the woman is married and capable of running a household. The tradition still continues in Hindu communities and has been compared to the Western exchange of wedding rings.

According to one source, there are well over fifty Sanskrit names for turmeric. Another indicates there are at least 100 names used for turmeric in Ayurvedic texts. Some identify its uses — “jawarantika (which cures fevers)”; others highlight its appearance — “kanchani (exhibits golden color)”; still others acknowledge the herb’s religious significance — “mangalprada (who bestows auspiciousness)”.

Haldi for a wedding. Image source: Pixabay. 

Of all of these, I find haridra to be especially moving. The blog Practical Sanskrit explains that this name, commonly used in North India, combines ‘Hari,’ one of the name’s of Vishnu, with ‘Ardra,’ which means moist. The bright yellow color of the fresh root was used in paintings and other representations of Vishnu, who wore a sash that was supposed to be the color of lightning. Haridra thus is “the moist one with Hari’s color.” The sacred and the commonplace are thereby linked through this root that provides vibrancy, flavor, and healing.

In Hindi, haridra is haldi. In China, it is called jiang huang, yet another linguistic reference to its golden color.

Residue on cooking pots suggest turmeric was used along with garlic and ginger to flavor foods at least as early as 2500 BCE. Documented evidence of turmeric’s medicinal use dates to at least 650 BCE, . Although the ancient Greeks appear to have been familiar with the herb, it was not incorporated into their healing practices. The Romans also seem to have ignored it. Meanwhile, turmeric was used regularly by Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese practitioners. David Bunting writes:

As a seedless plant, its movement to new locations throughout the tropics has been dependent upon people. By 800 AD Turmeric had spread across much of Asia, including China, and across Africa. This is testament not only to its wide esteem as a useful plant, but also to its trade and relocation in early history. By the 18th century Turmeric made its way to Jamaica and it is now cultivated throughout the tropics, including Hawaii and Costa Rica.

Marco Polo marveled at turmeric’s similarity to saffron when he visited China in the 13th century. It seems as though most Europeans only saw turmeric as a seasoning or useful to make a bright yellow dye until the early 19th century, when French chemists isolated curcumin from turmeric in the early 19th century. Even then, Western medicine remained indifferent towards turmeric until the mid-20th century.

While turmeric certainly has an impressively long presence in the historical record, none of this helped to explain the origin of its name. Then I came across a chapter all about turmeric by Prasad S. Aggarwal in the second edition of Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects:

The name turmeric derives from the Latin word terra merita (meritorious earth), referring to the color of ground turmeric, which resembles a mineral pigment. It is known as terre merite in French and simply as “yellow root” in many languages.

Meritorious Earth. Now that is an impressive title.

The common English name for turmeric thus derives from yet another Latin name imposed by the colonial powers that be. Yet this one recognizes the root’s potential

Turmeric and ginger, nestled together.

beyond its pretty face…er…color. They did not call it Yellow Earth. They called it Meritorious Earth. Meritorious. Deserving of merit. Deserving of reward. Deserving of praise. Like haldi or haridra, the name turmeric hints at the power and perhaps even the sacred nature of this plant. Yes, beneath the gnarled exterior is a vivid and tasty root. But turmeric also promises relief and healing for a multitude of conditions. For those of us it helps, it truly is worthy of praise. Meritorious Earth, indeed.

Of course, none of this will help me with pronunciation, as I’m sure people will look at me with confusion if I start talking about adding Meritorious Earth to my morning smoothie. And now I’m curious about the origins of the English names of other non-Western medicinal plants. I assume they, too, are derived from Latin descriptors. I have much history to explore. But for now, I feel an even deeper appreciation for turmeric’s health benefits. As for what happened in the mid-twentieth century to bring the medicinal uses of turmeric to Western attention, that will have to wait for another post.

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