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 had 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