Named for what it’s not

“Yes, we have no bananas.” So began, with a contradiction, a once-popular song of the 20th century. And that reminds me of the popular pain-reliever aspirina/aspirin, whose first letter is the reduced form of the ancient Greek an-, that like its Latin cognate in- and its English cognate un-, meant ‘not.’ The main part of the word, spir-, is a reference to the plant that botanists call Spiraea ulmaria, from which the active ingredient of aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid, had been extracted. What made aspirin practical—in addition to its effectiveness in relieving pain—was that chemists had figured out how to produce it synthetically, so they no longer needed supplies of Spiraea ulmaria. The term Aspirin, with the -in suffix common to the names of many chemical compounds, came into existence in 1899 as a trademark of the German firm Bayer, for which aspirin’s synthesizer, Arthur Eichengrun, worked. And yes, there’s no doubt that Bayer aspirin (along with every other brand of aspirin) is still at work relieving headaches more than a century later.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Just A Smidgen
    Dec 31, 2011 @ 18:02:18

    This just might come in handy New Year’s morning:) Have fun tonight!


  2. niasunset
    Jan 02, 2012 @ 05:15:11

    Aspirin, one of my favorite tablets… But I didn’t know these details, as always it was so nice. Thank you, Happy New Year Steve, with my love, nia


  3. shoreacres
    Jan 02, 2012 @ 10:20:01

    I grew up in Iowa, in a home surrounded by trees, shrubs and flowers, including abundant Spiraea ulmaria. I loved the flowers, especially their fragrance. We knew it by a common name that makes me laugh, now that I’ve read your posting. We called it “Bridal Wreath” – and after all, if you don’t count New Year’s Eve, what causes more headaches than a wedding?

    Happy (still a) New Year!


  4. Steve Schwartzman
    Jan 02, 2012 @ 10:38:44

    At least you’re familiar with the plant, which I’m not, and have enjoyed the flowers’ fragrance, which I haven’t.

    In light of where you grew up, perhaps you’ve been given a headache by the confusion that so many Americans seem to fall into about the vowelly names of the states Iowa and Ohio and Idaho.

    As for weddings, my preference is for the simplest possible, but that stands me apart from many (most?) other people.


  5. kathryningrid
    Jan 02, 2012 @ 13:07:13

    Being allergic to it, I find aspirin ironically a headache-*producer* or enhancer, but I am grateful for it all the same, as its relief to those around me benefits me as well! It *is* intriguing to see how many words derive from something quite different than what a casual guess might imply, isn’t it. 🙂


  6. Steve Schwartzman
    Jan 02, 2012 @ 13:26:10

    We can interpret the negative a of aspirin as meaning ‘not for Kathryn.’

    Yes, it is intriguing “to see how many words derive from something quite different than what a casual guess might imply.” Your comment has prompted me to write about a little but striking example of that in tomorrow’s post. You’ll see what I mean.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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