Twice in the past month Egypt has beckoned. The first time, which was really a series of times, the news media documented protests that led after several weeks to the overthrow of a decades-long dictator. The second time was in baker* Monet Moutrie’s blog “anecdotes and apple cores,” when, after referring to her “impressive collection of herbal, green and black teas,” she mentioned Egyptian licorice.
Licorice is one of the few English words in which a ce gets pronounced like an sh (that pronunciation is more common for ci, as in special and social). Licorice seems to be based on liquor, and while it’s true that the modern English form shows influence from the family of words that includes liquor and liquid, licorice has its own curious history.
Licorice goes back to the Greek compound glukurrhiza. The first element was glukus ‘sweet,’ which we recognize in the sugar that 19th-century French chemist Jean-Baptiste Dumas named glucosa/glucose, and in the glico-/glyco- of technical terms like glicógeno/glycogen and glicoproteína/glycoprotein. The second element in glukurrhiza was Greek rhiza, which meant the same as its Spanish cognate raíz and its English cognate root, and which appears in the botanical term rizoma/rhizome ‘a plant stem that grows horizontally and produces roots or leaves.’
So glukurrhiza was the descriptive Greek name for a certain plant that had a ‘sweet root.’ It was when Late Latin borrowed the Greek word as liquiritia that the influence of the Latin verb liquere ‘to flow’ came into play, based on the fact that people used liquid to extract the sweet component of the plant’s root. Late Latin liquiritia evolved to Old French licorice, which English retains.
If Late Latin changed glukurrhiza to liquiritia, early Spanish continued with the alterations, which included switching the positions of the l and the r. By the time of Old Spanish, the word had become the unrecognizable regaliza. Then, as Joan Corominas explains, under the influence of the ending of the unrelated Spanish synonym orozuz (which came from Arabic), regaliza got shortened to the modern regaliz. And for those Spanish speakers who like licorice and liquid** consonants, regaliz is a double regalo ‘gift.’
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman
* Note that like the Fisher, Singer, and Currier of the day-before-yesterday’s post, Baker is another family name that started out as an occupation.
** In linguistics, a consonant that is pronounced without friction and that can be prolonged like a vowel is called a liquid: the l and r of regaliz and licorice are liquid consonants.