A short route through some etymological roots
We’ve been digging for root words – words that give origin to others. Root covers a lot of ground, offering meanings whose tendrils we’ve attempted to follow.
Digging (/ˈdɪɡɪŋ(ɡ)/ from Old English dīc, meaning ‘ditch’) a little deeper
We’ve been digging for root words – words that give origin to others. The word ‘root’ itself has a mass of meanings and uses. From Old Norse rōt — but related to Latin radix (root both soil-surrounded but also mathematical; also the stem word for ‘radical’ – change at the root) and also to wort (plant or herb used as food or medicinally, i.e. the Harry Potter-ish butterwort or woundwort) — root covers a lot of ground, offering meanings whose tendrils we’ve attempted to follow in this journal.
Roots matter. Where we share roots, we share food, and we share wine – in the sacrament, in healing, in celebration, in cooking, in family communing. It is both the highest and the humblest of libations, rooted in tradition.
So taking, as ever, an oenological angle, a short route through some close-to-home etymological roots…
Noun. /lahfeet/ (From the Gascon phrase la hite, meaning ‘hillock’)
First recorded as a name in the very sequential 1234 (yes, really), Lafite is documented as a medieval fief from the 14th Century. The phrase ‘la hite’ is Gascon, an Occitano-Romance language spoken mainly in the regions of Gascony and Béarn in the southwest of France.
It’s thought there were already vines growing at Château Lafite Rothschild by the time the Ségur family bought the property in the 17th Century, but Jacques de Ségur is the man credited with planting the vineyard that earned the name its enviable reputation. That reputation is so pervasive that Lafite has its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The earliest cited use is from 1707 in the London Gazette, in reference to a parcel of ‘new French clarets’. A little later in 1719, Thomas Jefferson described ‘Lafitte’ as one of his four ‘best and dearest’ Bordeaux wines. The spelling with one ‘f’ and one ‘t’ became standard by the 1960s.
Noun. /kiʃ.nɔt/ (Allegedly from Middle English kisse me not)
In old photographs of women working the vines, you’ll notice the quichenotte, a thin cotton or linen hat worn to provide protection from the sun. Legend has it that the word is derived from the Middle English kisse me not, and dates back to the period when the English ruled Aquitaine. The quichenotte was apparently used to ‘discourage English soldiers from dallying with French women during the Hundred Years’ War’.
Noun. /sɒmˈmɛli.ə/ (From the French word somler, meaning ‘butler’)
As the English word ‘butler’ has its own roots in ‘botellier’, stemming from ‘bouteille’, this seems a fair philological trade. Once a name for the manager in charge of provisions in a wealthy household, ‘somler’ grew out of ‘somme’. A ‘bête de somme’ was a beast of burden, and its handler a ‘somler’ or later ‘sommelier’, the person in charge of baggage in the movement of a court.
As well as overseeing the transport of belongings, a sommelier would have selected the food and wines for the household, and tasted both to test for poison. Fortunately, in today’s less perilous times, the role has evolved: to choosing and tasting wines for suitability and quality, rather than their likelihood of dealing a deathblow.
Noun. /klærət/ (From the Latin word clarus, meaning ‘bright’)
The word ‘claret’ has long been used in talking about red wines, and now refers almost exclusively to those from Bordeaux. But once upon a time, ‘claret’ meant a light-coloured wine, tawny or pale, distinct from reds or whites. This sense appeared in English as early as 1396, but ‘claret’ acquired its reddish hue in around 1648. The Old French ‘claret’ or modern ‘clairet’ is a diminutive of ‘clair’, meaning clear, luminous, translucent. From the Latin ‘clarus’, claret can mean brilliant or bright, associated with innocence and purity. Digging deeper still, ‘clarus’ has its roots in the Middle English and Old French ‘clary’.
A now obsolete use has ‘clary’ as a sweet wine mixed with clarified honey and spices – or any drink fortified with medicinal herbs. ‘Claret’, in a use darker in both colour and sense, can also mean ‘blood’, weaving back to a Middle English use of ‘wine’ to mean a fellow soldier, kinsman or blood-relative.
Noun. /plɒŋk/ (From the Old French word blanc, meaning ‘white’)
This affectionate slang probably derives from an exaggerated English pronunciation of the French ‘blanc’. Used colloquially since the 1930s for basic wines of all varieties, numerous rumours pepper the etymology of ‘plonk’, though the OED caveats these tenuous roots with a lack of evidence. One fable is that it was adopted during WWI by English soldiers in the French trenches, drinking any available ‘plonk’ to offer distraction from despair. Another tale endows ‘plonk’ with Australian origins, reflecting its broad use as a humorous term across Commonwealth countries. Sometimes used to play down the status of a good wine, instead of being unflattering it can suggest familiarity and fondness for the ‘plonk’ in question, setting the tone for a relaxed social gathering – ‘just bring a bottle of plonk’.
Noun. /meɾˈlo/ (From the French word merle, meaning ‘blackbird’)
A word English has borrowed directly from the French, ‘merlot’ has a rather charming backstory. Once spelled ‘merlau’, it’s rooted in the French for blackbird, ‘merle’ – another word still borrowed in modern English, mainly in poetic usage. There is broad agreement that the name of the grape stems from the velvety darkness of the bird’s wine-black plumage – an alluring reference to the rich, deep shade and soft texture of merlot grapes. Theories that further entwine the bird with the vine suggest that the grape is named in allusion to the thieving merle’s fondness for stealing the fruit, which is grown most prolifically in Bordeaux. Whichever came first – the blackbird or the grape – the etymology is as charismatic as both.
Verb. /fə(r)ˈment/ (From the Latin fermentare, meaning ‘to ferment’)
In the late 14th Century, ‘fermentation’ had a general use in the mystical philosophical realm of alchemy. Possibly rooted in the Latin ‘fervimentum’, from ‘fervere’ to boil, the word is linked to the Proto-Indo-European ‘brheu’ – boil, bubble, or brew. Tasting wine from the estates, we sometimes wonder if our vintners, turning grape juice to wine, are indeed alchemists. Either way, the stages of fermentation are a vital part of wine-making, though today our winemakers take a rather more precise oenological approach to the process. Magic, after all, is only science that is not yet understood…