14 Dec 2010

The poppy pops up from nowhere

In 1862, volume 94 of the publication The North American review wrote on page 384:
"We are told that the use of the common white poppy as a soother of pain and giver of sleep, has been familiar from the earliest times; and an ingenious attempt has been made to derive the name poppy, or papaver, from papa or pap, because the plant was commonly mixed with the food of young children, to secure their sleep. This is one of those etymological postulates more ingenious than probable."
Nearly a hundred-and-fifty years later, I still can't get a straight answer on the origin of Latin papāver. If it somehow were to have something to do with the nursery term pāpa for 'food' (cf. pāpārium 'pap') as implied above, and even ignoring that such a semantic link is trying in itself, how would this poppy word have been grammatically formed from such a root? There are oddly only five terms in the Latin dictionary on Perseus ending in -ver (excluding vēr itself) which could suggest that the word was loaned from elsewhere, yet if so, establishing its source so far eludes me. What a frustrating word.


  1. That is bar none the shakiest folk etymology I have ever heard. Feeding opium to children - maybe you really need to, in extremity, but that's hardly the first thing I would think of in connection with this plant.

    Most of these cultigens come from Anatolia and the Iranian areas - grapes, wheat, barley, oats, almonds, olives and a whole load of others. I can't see the poppy being native to Egypt because the climate doesn't offer the growing conditions without some help. The chances that no one used or named this plant until the Indo-Iranians showed up doesn't pass the laugh test. And as that is one of the most linguistically trampled areas on earth, the chances that the source language survived for study are pretty slim. Too bad we didn't ask the Kurds before they shifted language all those centuries ago.

  2. A funny thing, but the actual origins of the domesticated poppy (Papaver somniferum) are equally ambiguous. For a long time, botanists believed it to be a descendant of the species Papaver setigerum, a wild-growing summer flower of the western Mediterranean region. While the two species are indeed closely related (and Papaver setigerum is the only wild-growing poppy species capable of morphine biosynthesis), there is a problem when it comes to chromosome count. Dwarf poppies (Papaver setigerum) have 44 chromosomes, while opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) only 22! Even those not expertising in genetics would feel that opium poppies actually fall closer to the ancestry of both species, the dwarf poppies being a tetraploid, derived type. Because of this separation, the two species cannot even cross-pollinate. There is no way to directly derive dometicated opium poppies from dwarf poppies, but the two species likely have had a shared common (wild-growing) ancestor.

    The opium poppy genome having largely been sequenced, yields another interesting insight into the evolution and dispersal of that species. Surprisingly, the highest diversity of strains was found in Iran, Afghanistan and India. Normally such a distribution would indicate that the cultivation of the species started in that area. But that largely conflicts archaeological data, showing that opium poppy cultivation was common in neolithic Europe, but it appeared only later in the Middle East. So, just as we cannot track down the (likely long extinct) wild ancestor of opium poppies, we can neither determine the place and time where and when it was first cultivated.

  3. Bayndor, that's a lot of the same problem as they have always had with tracking donw the ancestor of maize.

    It's interesting too because we don't generally think of Western Europe as a hotspot for cultigens, even though a fairly big tranche of the most popular ones come from there - plums, strawberries, raspberries, cabbage and radishes - and probably lots of others.

    "Normally such a distribution would indicate that the cultivation of the species started in that area. "
    this is the genral principle wuith languages too, but there are notable exceptions. The center for diversity for Chinese languages is southern China, while there is no question that the point of dispersal was in the northwest. It's just there point of origin is not the only factor in "speciation" when it comes to languages.

  4. The papaver etymology is indeed curious. Here is what William Mitchell Ramsay, "Studies in the Roman Province Galatia. VI.--Some Inscriptions of Colonia Caesarea Antiochea," Journal of Roman Studies 14 (1924): 172-205 at 183 n.1, claims:

    "A poppy is carved on an altar of Hermes: the native name of opium was papa; papaver
    (cp. cadaver) is of Anatolian origin. Pappa meant father."

    There's no citation to follow up the supposed Anatolian origin of papaver, however.

  5. Stephen C. Carlson: "There's no citation to follow up the supposed Anatolian origin of papaver, however."

    This is repeated by Puhvel under the entry hasduer- in Hittite Etymological Dictionary (1991). From what I can tell, this is simply an assumption based on a perceived ending *-wr̥ which then gives it a strong Indo-European appearance.

  6. Jim,

    I had a chuckle too at the idea of giving opium to bratty tykes to make them pass out. LOL!

  7. If there's a derivational pattern in cadō, cadere, cecidicadāver, it implies a verb *papō, *papere, *pepidi, *pāsum -> papāver.

    That supine stem reminds me of patior, patī, passus sum "suffer, endure"; the connection with a crop known for its analgesic properties makes sense to me. Am I on to something here?

  8. Ketsuban,

    Your reasoning is sound up to a certain point but it yields nothing because you've failed the expectations of your own stated hypothesis. There still is no verb *papō, and pat- in patior doesn't magically turn into *pap-.

    Then even if presumably cadāver 'corpse' meant literally 'that which has fallen', the notion that papāver is 'that which has suffered' is highly dubious, even if we could somehow get an extra -p- in that root.

  9. Thanks for the Puhvel link. Not particularly encouraging for the purported links with a Hittite suffix is the parenthetical comment "(assuming non-rhotacistic r)."

    I'm not sure this assumption is warranted, however. One case of -ver comes from just such a rhotacism: pulver ~ pulvis. Analogously, papaver might well have come from *papavis.

  10. I rather like that idea, Stephen. I'll think through that possibility.