Word Count: 453

One of the cool things about having a wife who is learning Latin (and Greek) is that I’m finally getting some resolution to some etymological mysteries that I’ve had for years with some Romanian words.

A case in point is the Romanian word for garlic, which is totally unlike other Romance languages:

French: ail
Spanish: ajo
Italian: aglio
Catalan: all

All from the Latin root (and official botanical name) for garlic, which is allium. So how in the world did the Romanian word for garlic become usturoi (oostu-roy)?

I knew it wasn’t a word with Slavic roots, so for years I just shrugged my shoulders and resolved that the etymology of usturoi would just have to remain a mystery. Now, thanks to Cristina, I now know that the word comes from a different Latin root, this time from a Romanian verb a ustura which means “to sting”, derived from the Latin ustulo, which means to “scorch” or “singe”.

The ancient Romans had a lot of different verbs for “burning”, starting with ustulo (burn a little), ardere (burn), and crema (burn to ashes), mostly because they wrote a lot of cook books and were pretty obsessed about the preparation and serving of food. In modern English, we use the word ardent to mean “a burning passion or enthusiasm” and “cremate” to refer to burning (usually a body) to ashes.


Depending on how much raw garlic you eat, it can leave a kind of burning or stinging sensation in your mouth, so clearly some long-ago Roman colonist in Dacia Felix coined this cute word usturoi (“scorcher”) for the delicious and nutritious but very powerful-tasting garlic.

Interestingly enough, the English word “garlic” is a compound word, originally gar-leek, a combination of the word “leek” (a close relative of both onions and garlic, all three of which are classified as allium by botanists) and a Germanic root word for a spear tip (“gar”). Essentially, garlic is then “the leek in the shape of a spear tip”, which is a rather pragmatic description.

Squaring the circle, the Russian word for “onion” is лук (pronounced look), also inherited from the same root word “leek”. And, although the official Hungarian word for “onion” is hagyma, I’ve seen shops in Budapest label onions as “luk” (also pronounced look). I’m not conversant enough in Hungarian to know whether that was a local variant or whether perhaps a lot of Russian-speaking Hungarian immigrants (mostly from Zakarpattia) brought the word with them. I do know that I had to get by with my rudimentary Russian when I was last in Budapest, as English was scarce to non-existent, and I surely do not speak enough Hungarian to get around.


7 thoughts on “Afterburner

  1. I remember my grandparents, who lived in Cluj county, using the same word “ai” for usturoi. I think it’s either a “regionalism” or an “arhaic” word, definitely having a Latin root.

    Liked by 1 person

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