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An etymological treasure-hunt

September 29, 2020

Yesterday I was doing the Times crossword and came upon the following clue: ‘Gemstone in Saxony tossed across road (8)’. After putting on my thinking cap I realised that it must be a word for a type of gemstone and that it would be an anagram of ‘SAXONY’ with ‘RD’ (the abbreviation for ‘road’) somewhere in the middle: and so came up with the answer ‘SARDONYX’ – a stone I had never heard of, but when I googled it, sure enough, there it was: a ‘parallel banded variety of the silicate mineral chalcedony’.

So that was interesting in itself: but then I got to thinking about the similarity of this word to the word ‘sardonic’. Could there be a connection? Up until then I had always assumed that sardonic was a portmanteau word: a hybrid of sarcastic and ironic.But this mineral’s name was so close to sardonic – only two letters away, and the first six letters identical – that it seemed unlikely to be a coincidence.

Unlikely things happen, however. It was a coincidence. But it turned out that sardonic has an interesting etymology in its own right. It is not a mash-up of sarcastic and ironic (the similarity with those words is a coincidence as well.) The real derivation is as follows. It comes, via Latin and French, from the Ancient Greek word sardonion, which referred to a Sardinian plant, Ranunculus Sardous. Apparently eating this plant caused one’s face to contort and convulse as if one was laughing bitterly or scornfully. (That scornful expression would probably be your last, as the plant is highly poisonous.) Isn’t that a great etymology?

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  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Very interesting. Sardonic could be part of another thread of words which are often written but seldom spoken.
    Another food related word new to me, which could be due a comeback, is abligurition – excessive spending on fine foods.

  2. Mark Brafield permalink

    What a fantastic etymology ! I shall really enjoy using that one. The only similar derivation I can think of, which is much better known, is ‘basilica’. The name literally means ‘the seat of a king’ from the Greek ‘basileus’ for ‘king’, and the herb basil was so called because it was thought to have such a fine flavour that it was the ‘herb of kings’. Thanks again – wonderful post.

    ps. I can think of several metaphors, rather than etymologies, that derive from pulling a face in certain extreme situations, but they are utterly unrepeatable on a public board. All can, however, be found in the completely wonderful ‘Roger’s Thesaurus’, a cornucopia of filthy words that you never knew existed, and that regularly accompanies Viz comic.

  3. Hi Mark. Good to hear from you. Didn’t know the etymology of ‘basilica’ or its connection with the herb basil. I am of course familiar with Roger Melly’s brilliant Profanisaurus!

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