In learning about the native plant that botanists categorize as Sarcocornia (previously Salicornia) pacifica recently, I noticed that a couple of its vernacular names are Pacific swampfire and Pacific samphire. The plant grows in saline marshes, so that accounted for the “swamp.” Some parts of the plant turn reddish, so I figured that color metaphorically became the “fire.” As I imagined it, samphire would have arisen as a faster, simpler pronunciation of swampfire.

So much for hypotheses: once I investigated, I found I had things backwards, because swampfire arose as a folk-etymological recasting of the opaque samphire. I’d gotten it partly right, though, because samphire did come about as a phonetically recast English version of the French name Saint Pierre. The American Heritage Dictionary explains that the name, which originally applied to a Eurasian plant (hence the qualifier Pacific swampfire), came “from French (herbe de) Saint Pierre, (herb of) Saint Peter, after Saint Pierre, Saint Peter, a patron saint of fisherman (the plant being so called because it grows on rocks near the sea, the name perhaps also being influenced by French pierre, rock).”

The connections to Spanish, of course, are that French saint is Spanish santo (both from Latin sanctus ‘holy’), and French pierre is Spanish piedra (both from Latin petra, taken from Greek petrā ‘cliff, rock’). Relatives of the former include santificar/sanctify and santurrón/sanctimonious. Relatives of the latter include petrificar/petrify and petróleo/petroleum (literally ‘rock oil’).

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Feb 25, 2017 @ 06:41:41

    Now I’m wondering about the name of a place in Acadian Louisiana that’s still on my to-be-visited list: Pierre Part. I’ve not been able to find any information about the name with a cursory search, but I’m intrigued, since “rocky” isn’t a quality I’d associate with the topography there.

    I couldn’t figure out why samphire seemed so familiar until I realized it was calling to mind that master of the pan flute, Zamfir. That’s a name that nearly had disappeared from memory.


  2. Trackback: Pickleweed | Portraits of Wildflowers
  3. Gallivanta
    Mar 06, 2017 @ 06:56:13

    The etymology of parsley had me wondering about the origin of Persil ( washing powder) but it seems that is nothing to do with parsley or stones.


  4. Klausbernd
    May 03, 2017 @ 08:45:48

    Thank you very much for explaining the etymology of “samphire”.
    Here on the North Norfolk coast eating samphire has an age old tradition. Maybe the French roots of this word going back to the Normans. On the other hand our Norfolk language is much more influenced by Danish and Dutch or Old Norse than French.
    On our blog about samphire
    you can see that our Norfolk samphire doesn’t get red. Here the samphire is seen as a delicatessen that is very much asked for.
    Have an easy day
    The Fab Four of Cley


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 03, 2017 @ 09:36:06

      You’re welcome. If I’d known, when I came across samphire in California, that it’s edible, I’d have nibbled some raw or taken a little back to the apartment where we were staying so I could have cooked it. If I make it back to England, I’ll have to try some there.


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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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