or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Daily Grind

Having twice in the last week dealt with "molar" and its offshoots, I naturally began to wonder about that other crushing device, the mortar and pestle.

There are three versions of "mortar" in English: there's the cup- or bowl-shaped grinder, the bomb, and the mixture of cement. And wouldn't you know it? They're all the same word!

The bomb is the newest of the three usages, named for its shape, which resembled that of the bowl in which we grind things. (I have a little marble mortar-and-pestle in my kitchen.) The other two are neck-and-neck for the origin of the word, a chicken-or-egg situation: was the bowl named first and its pulverized contents named after it, or was it vice versa?

"Pestle" is more straightforward, since there's only one, and it's from Latin "pistillum", with the same meaning, and that in turn stems from Indo-European "peis-", "to crush". But wait a second: doesn't "pistillum" make you think of "pistil", the female reproductive organ of a flower? And isn't a pestle more or less the same shape as a pistil?

Yes and yes. And there's more: "piston" is also from the same source, since a piston is shaped like a large pestle, more or less. And more: "pesto" is so named because it is traditionally made of basil and pignoli, pounded in a mortar. (I've made it that way, once, and it wasn't really worth the trouble, although maybe if I'd had a bigger mortar....)

And one last thing: although you needn't believe me, "tisane", which I mentioned yesterday, has nothing at all to do with tea, but is instead related to "pestle" and its kin: it comes to us from French, obviously, though it began its life as Greek "ptisane", "crushed barley", via "ptissein", "to winnow".


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