In my other blog I’ve occasionally showed pictures of flameleaf sumac, Rhus lanceolata, a small tree whose compound leaves turn yellow, orange, and red in the fall. The English word sumac is spelled two ways, the other being sumach, and pronounced two ways, with the first consonant sounded either /s/ or /∫/. The Spanish name—and one with a single pronunciation*—for trees in the genus Rhus is zumaque, clearly a cognate of English sumac(h). Both the English word (via Old French) and the Spanish word trace back to the Arabic name for a tree in this family, summaq, but its roots are even older. Arabic had taken the word from Aramaic, where it meant ‘dark red,’ based on a Semitic root meaning ‘red,’ “por el color de sus semillas,” “for the color of its seeds,” as the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española explains.

It turns out that the reddish fruits of the zumaque contain high amounts of tannin, so that the Spanish verb zumacar, used with reference to tanners and curriers, means ‘adobar las pieles con zumaque,’ ‘to tan hides with sumac.’ As far as I know, an English speaker can’t sumac anything (though if someone named Mac does you an injustice you can sue Mac).


* In any given Spanish-speaking region everyone will pronounce zumaque the same way, but of course the pronunciation of z in Spain differs from that in other regions.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mrsdaffodil
    May 16, 2013 @ 10:02:42

    I believe Tanner’s Sumac (Rhus coriaria) is also the source of dried fruits used as one of the ingredients in the spice mixture, Za’atar, although I have read that sumac can be toxic. I was introduced to Za’atar by a friend who had travelled in the Middle East.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 16, 2013 @ 11:23:39

      Thanks for the introduction to Rhus coraria, about which I found more information in Livestrong and Wikipedia. I’ve had sumac-ade made from one of our local Texas species and it was tasty. It might be prudent not to consume too much of that or the za’atar you mentioned.


  2. shoreacres
    May 18, 2013 @ 06:59:42

    We can suffer the effects of tannin, too. Over the years I found myself less and less able to tolerate red wine, especially a nice Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux. A friend told me to switch to white, that the tannins in red wine can cause headaches even after only a glass or two. And so it was.

    As for the word “sumac”, here’s my revelation. I woke up about 3 a.m. thinking, “You know, if you reverse those letters, it would spell “Camus”.

    I knew it wasn’t a palindrome, but I wondered if it might be “something”. I was so amused by the whole thing I got up, and found this in the Wiki: “Semordnilap is a name coined for a word or phrase that spells a different word or phrase backward. “Semordnilap” is itself “palindromes” spelled backward.”

    Not only that, I found “semordnilap” by doing a Google search for “words that mean something different when their letters are reversed”. I love the internet. 😉


  3. Steve Schwartzman
    May 18, 2013 @ 07:35:28

    I remember noticing as a child that the word pots spelled backward makes stop, and tops spelled backward makes spot, but of course I didn’t have the word semordnilap at my disposal to describe those sriap, i.e. pairs.
    So can we use the term semi-ordnilap or semirdnilap for a word that comes close to spelling another word when its letter are reversed?

    As for sumac, non-French-speakers probably don’t know that the adjective camus means ‘pug-nosed,’ which Camus wasn’t, as best I can make out from photographs of him.

    And as for red wine, it can make my jaws hurt, though I don’t know if that’s because of tannins, sulfites, or something else.

    And yes, the Internet is great for finding things. It has made research so much easier and better, and I’m indebted to it for many finds.


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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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