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PARSLEY: WHAT'S IN A NAME?

As some of you know already, for the last 3 years I have been collecting 'parsley' names in various languages. This started because someone told me that a) 'parsley' meant St Peter's herb (wrong) and b) that its names were very similar and started with a P in various languages (right but only half the story).

Out of curiosity I went out on a search and now I have a list with about 80 names. It has been like making a puzzle: to start with, you don't know the pattern but as it grows and the last pieces are extremely hard to find, one starts guessing what they are going to look like. Really exciting!

And here I have the pleasure of showing you my puzzle: a map of the currently spoken names for 'parsley' in various countries around the Mediterranean region, the area on which I've concentrated.

map of the currently spoken names for 'parsley'

green and dots - Words derived from Petroselinum.
dark green and dots - Words derived from Petroselinum possibly going out of fashion.
thin stripe - Words related to the Turkish word Maydanoz.
thick stripe - Arabic words derived from Maydanoz.
orange and crosses - Exceptions.

For each country I have opted for its official language word found in the dictionary, which sometimes differed from the one given to me by native speakers, but more of that later. This is an over-simplification, for as you are aware there are many countries with more than one language.

So let's look at the first key word, Petroselinum which is a classical Greek word and the dominant one over most of Europe. Petroselinum means: petros, stone/ rock + selinum, celery. In English the etymology of the word 'parsley' starts from Greek Petroselinon> Latin Petrocilium> Late Latin Petrosillum> Old English Petersilie> Middle English, influenced by Old French, Peresil> 'parsley'.

At this stage you can easily guess how words like Persil, Perejil, Prezemollo, Peterselie, Petrushka, Persilja, Perrezil, and many others including Bersomello and Tursin, developed in other languages. However, I have detected a change in the air: in tune with recent history, some native speakers of the ex Soviet Union republics are getting away from the dictionary and their Petrushka related words are out. Thus I have marked Belorussia, where I was told Petrushka is considered a comic character, and Kazakhstan, with shaded dots.

Nevertheless there is a remarkable name similarity throughout languages spoken in Europe. Why should this be?

Well, 'parsley' seeds are difficult to germinate. Have you tried? My feeling is that because of that it spread slowly out of its native place, carefully passed from hand to hand, and it never acquired local names like, for instance, wild mushrooms have. What was then parsley's origin?

Nobody knows for sure, but its history in the Eastern Mediterranean is fascinating and dates from a very long way back. A quick glance at Greek mythology yields good results: Homer's Odyssey, written ~ 7th century BC, has a description of 'parsley' growing on the island of Ogygia, alas an imaginary place and, a century later, in the Nemean games the victor was rewarded with a crown of 'parsley'.

Back to my map, am I right in guessing that some of you have already spotted that Greece is not in the Petroselinum camp? Indeed, the present Greek name is MaindanÚs derived from the Turkish Maydanoz, the other key word in my map, marked in stripes. Curious isn't it?

What happened was that a Latin term related to an ancient Greek place - Macedonence - became a Turkish word - Maydanoz - and then a modern Greek word - MaindanÚs. All this happened because after the Turks arrived in Anatolia, over 9 centuries ago, they had to borrow a word for 'parsley', most certainly because they were new to this herb. I've been told that Makedonce is still one of the words for 'parsley' in a dialect of the Macedonian language.

Not surprisingly the Balkan region is strongly on the Maydanoz side, which is where Macedonia is located. Do you remember Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Empire?

Let's get back to the Turks. During the Ottoman Empire (1453-1922) they had an enormous influence not only on the Greek language but on the Arabic speaking nations one as well. For example the Arabic words Maqdunis/ Baqdunis both derive from the Turkish Maydanoz. Just look at the map and see that Maydanoz also extends over the Middle East and North Africa including Morocco which was never under the Turks. I marked these countries with wider stripes because I discovered that Arabic speakers sometimes identify coriander (Coriandrum sativum) as Maqdunis/ Baqdunis. This is understandable as it is a much more popular herb than 'parsley' in their cuisine and also very easy to grow in a hot climate.

Within the Semitic group of languages things are also a bit fuzzy regarding the correct designation of 'parsley' (Petroselinum sativum) and the herb celery (Apium graveolens). They are botanically very close and their seeds are almost identical.

For instance take Karpas the Hebrew word for celery. During the Passover ceremony a fresh green herb, which traditionally is called Karpas, is passed around in a dish, and quite often 'parsley' is used. However I've marked Israel in green dots in my map because the modern Hebrew word for 'parsley' is Petersilia, which appears in the Talmud (3rd -5th century AD).

Karpas to me looks suspiciously similar to the Karfus/ Krafs, the dictionary Arabic for celery as well. Look at the tiny speck between Sicily and North Africa, the archipelago of Malta, which was never under the Ottoman Empire.
The Maltese for 'parsley' is Tursin, derived from the Scilian Petrosino, and also Karfus thus reflecting influences from the north and the south.

Obviously I had to do a search for the pre-Maydanoz word in Arabic to complete my puzzle. Eventually I found Karafs in a huge 12th century Hispano-Arabic agricultural book, which thank goodness had a Spanish translation alongside the Arabic. Then I had the pleasure of reading lovely instructions on how to germinate its seeds.

Still on the Iberian peninsula most of you are familiar with the Spanish word Salsa, meaning sauce. Not so in Portuguese, where Salsa means, just guess.... 'parsley', of course!

Maria Fremlin,
11 October 2001, Colchester, Essex, England

PS: This article was written for the modern languages bulletin of Grey Friars Adult Community College, where I am the Portuguese tutor.

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