Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 17 July 2004

A Lexicographer writes

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The summer flowers are blowing, and I was reminded yesterday of a slightly outlandish-sounding line in the summery poem Pearl which speaks of the plants ‘gilofre, gyngure & gromylyoun’. I am still not sure what gromylyoun is. I know it’s gromwell, but I haven’t got any in the garden, and my husband has never had occasion to use it, despite its medicinal reputation in the Middle Ages.

I thought I knew what gillyflower was, though — the wallflower, with its candy popcorn scent. But Michael Quinion has disabused me. He is the author of an excellent new book called Port Out, Starboard Home and Other Myths (Penguin, £12.99), which explodes erroneous etymologies. Posh we dealt with here, and I thought I liked this new book because I agreed with everything it said. But on the gillyflower, like Bunbury I am exploded.

The gillyflower derives its name from the word gilofre — as in that 14th-century poem Pearl. But this word originally meant ‘clove’. Indeed in a 13th-century guide from anchoresses more loved by philologists than those with a taste for racy prose, it is called clou de gilofre, a form taken directly from French. This compound noun is a bit of a doublet, for the girofle itself came from a Latin word carophilum, itself from Greek karuophullon, meaning nothing other than ‘clove’. But the two halves of clou de gilofre went their own ways. Clou, or clove, came to designate the spice. Clove-gillyflower, and then merely gillyflower, meant the clove-scented pink, Dianthus caryophyllus. The Spanish call pinks clavellinas, which, like clove, comes from Latin clavus, ‘a nail’. The single bud of a pink looks like a nail, as does the clove spice, but I am a bit foggy about whether the Spanish took the name because of its aptness for the flower’s shape or for the pink’s clove-like smell. In the English gillyflower, the g is soft, and the word has in some places been further adjusted to July-flower, a long way from carophilum.

But I’ve got another puzzle, for in the 15th-century cookery book, The Booke of Carving, there is a sauce called gelopere. Is this clove sauce, as the OED suggests (and if it is, is it made of cloves or clove-pinks?), or as Peter Brears, the learned annotator of the more recent Southover Press edition of the book, thinks more likely, a sauce made by soaking toast in vinegar and mixing it with salt and pepper? This is called alepeuer or olypeuer in two other manuscripts. Perhaps Michael Quinion’s internet correspondents can get their teeth into that.