garlic -Etymology

Garlic (Old English gārlēac) is a native Germanic word being com­posed of two ele­ments: The first ele­ment gar means spear and refers to the pointed leaves. It is cognate to Gothic gaida and Old High German ger, which has survived only in a number of German first names including my own.


That element ger is closely related to Old Irish gae spear and Latin gæsum heavy javelin, which is often thought a Celtic loan. A possibly related word is Greek chaios [χαῖος] shepherd’s crook; all these forms could derive from an Proto-Indo–European root ǴʰAISO javelin. There may be a remote connection to the verbal root ǴʰEI- set something in motion, hurl (Sanskrit heti [हेति] missile, Langobardic gaida point of an arrow, also English ghost).

The second ele­ment -lic (appearing in full form in the word leek) has plenty of cognates in other Germanic languages which generally mean either leek or onion, e. g., German Lauch, Swedish lök, Dutch look; there are also loans to non-Germanic languages (Russian luk [лук], Lithuanian lukai, Latvian ķiploki, Estonian küüslauk, Finnish laukka). The common explanation derives these words from an Proto-Indo–European verbal root LEUG meaning bend or turn, probably again referring to the leaves’ shape; cf. Lithuanian liaunas flexible and Greek lygizein [λυγίζειν] bend (see also chaste tree).


In Scandina­vian lan­guages, cognates of leek have through­out adopted the meaning onion, e. g., Danish løg, Swedish lök or Icelandic laukur. The name of garlic is, then, formed, by prefixing an adjective white: Danish hvidløg, Swedish vitlök and Icelandic hvítlaukur. The white-element is cognate to English white (Old English hwīt); see white mustard for its deri­vation.

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Similar naming motives reappear in some Eastern languages, e. g., Sinhala sudulunu [සූදුලුනු], Kannada bellulli [ಬೆಳ್ಳುಳ್ಳಿ] white onion, Garo rasin gipok, Bodo sambram gufut [सामब्राम गुफुत] white onion. and Indonesian bawang putih, where bawang is a general term for onion-related plants and putih means white (onion is red bawang). The Amharic name netch’ shinkurt [ነጭ ሽንኩርት] also contains the element netch’ [ነጭ] white. Lastly, a non-Germanic European example is Croatian bijeli luk and its Serbian counterpart beli luk [бели лук] white leek.

The Germanic runic letter for the sound L, , is commonly known as lagu lake, body of water; there is evidence, though, that this rune was formerly termed laukaz, which might have meant onion or even more probably leek. Being efficient preservatives, leek and its relatives were considered powerful magic plants by Germanic peoples. Note that also the runic alphabet was less used for practical than for cultic purposes. There are several mentions of lauk in the Poetic Edda: A nice example is found in the text sigrdrífumál (Lay of Sigrdrífa), where the valkyr Sigrdifa gives an apotropaeic counsel concerning beverages (useful, e. g., against poisoning): ok verpa lauki í lög and cast leek into the liquor. Another example testifying to the high reputation of garlic comes from the guðrúnarkviða in forna (Second Lay of Guthrun), where the heroine Guthrun employs a garlicky metaphor for her deceased husband Sigurth: sem væri grænn laukr ór grasi vaxinn as the leek grows green above the grass, meaning that Sigurth surpassed all the other warriors.

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The German na­me of garlic is Knob­lauch and cognate with Dutch knof­look; short forms in regional use include Knobi, Knofel and the Yiddish form knobl [קנאָבל]. Folk etymology holds that the first element knob- relates to knot (because the leaves of garlic are frequently tied together to improve growth of the subterranean parts), but in truth, the initial kn cluster evolved from dis­simila­tion of earlier kl (Old High German kloba­louh, Middle High German klobe­louch). That element belongs to a verb stem klieb-, meaning split (cf. English cleave); deriving from Proto-Indo–European GLEUBʰ cut, carve, peel, it is related to Greek glyphis [γλυφίς] notch, mark and Latin glubere peel. The second element -lauch is, of course, equivalent to English -lic.

Independently, Slavonic names for garlic like Czech česnek, Slovenian česen, Polish czosnek, Ukrainian chasnyk [часник] and Russian chesnok [чеснок] also have a semantic connection to splitting and partitioning: Czech část, Polish część and Russian chast [часть] part.

An interesting comment can be made about the term clove of garlic. The English word clove has two culinarily relevant meanings, which one should never confuse: A subelement of a bulb (as in a clove of garlic) and an aromatic spice from the Moluccas. Both meanings are related; see cloves for details. Here, it should be noted that German Knoblauch and English clove are etymologically related and both hint on the cleavability of garlic bulbs. Garlic cloves are referred to as Zehen (meaning toes) in German.

The French name Thériaque des pauvres (Theriac of the poor) reflects the medical value of garlic. In the Middle Ages, an expensive and complicated mixture of mostly very exotic ingredients called theriac was believed to be extremely powerful against every kind of illness (snake bite, bone fracture, plague, …).


In classical Latin, garlic was termed allium, which is still the botanical genus name for garlic and related plants (leek, shallot, onion, bear’s garlic and chives). The origin of this word is not known. The only Indo–European cognate is Old Greek aglis [ἄγλις]; yet there have been attempts to link that word to a Celtic root all- burning, pungent. Most contemporary Romance languages have names for garlic that derive from allium, e. g., Italian aglio, French ail, Provençal aïo, Spanish ajo, Galician allo and Portuguese alho. The botanical species name sativus means cultivated.

Hebrew shum [שום], already mentioned in the Old Testament (see pomegranate) and its cognates Arabic at-thum [الثوم], Aramaic and Tigré tum [ܬܘܡ, ቱም] have a long history in Semitic languages, as exemplified by Akkadian šūmū; there is also a related Sumerian name, šum [