Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Lag B'Omer was a few days ago, but we're still talking about requirements for a bonfire. And as my kids will testify, you can't have a bonfire without marshmallows. But did you know that marshmallow may have a Hebrew origin?

The Maven's Word of the Day provides the following etymology of the word "marshmallow":

Marshmallow is one of those words that seems as if it should have a really interesting etymology, but is in truth rather mundane.

A mallow is a type of shrub. It is a member of the mallow family, which also includes hibiscus, okra, cotton, and some other plants. A marsh mallow, as you are probably about to guess, is a variety of mallow that lives in marshy places. Althaea officinalis, if you're keeping track.

Marshmallow is a confection made from the root of the marsh mallow (or, more often nowadays, from a bunch of unpleasant artificial sweeteners, flavorings, and thickeners)
From the mallow plant we also get the word "mauve". Take Our Word For It also discusses the marshmallow, and writes:

It may surprise some to see that marsh-mallow occurs naturally and is not that unholy amalgam of nutrasweet and styrofoam without which no camp-fire would be complete. In fact, it is a species of mallow plant which grows near salt marshes. This marsh-mallow has mauve flowers but this should not surprise us as mauve means (in French) "the color of a mallow flower" (from the Latin malva "mallow").

At least one more English word gets its name from the mallow plant - the mineral malachite. The Online Etymology Dictionary provides this etymology:

1398, from L. molochitis, from Gk. molochitis lithos "mallow stone," from molokhe "mallow;" the mineral traditionally so called from resemblance of its color to that of the leaves of the mallow plant.
So how is the word "mallow" derived from Hebrew? Klein, in his CEDEL, writes the following:

mallow, n., name of a plant. -- ME. malwe, fr. OE. mealwe, fr. L. malva, which, together with Gk. malache , of s.m., is borrowed fr. Heb. mallua h , 'mallow' (Job 30:4), derivative of melah, 'salt'; cp. Aram. milha, Syr. melha, Arab. milh, Akad. milu, 'salt'. (See H. Lewy, Die semitischen Fremdworter im Griechischen, 31 f., and Immanuel Low , Flora der Juden, I 227 ff. and 242 ff.) Cp. malachite, malvacious, mauve. Cp. also Malaga.
So according to Klein, we can connect the mallow in marshmallow to the Hebrew word מלח melach - salt. And his mention of Malaga? This is a port city in Southern Spain, who according to this travel guide:

Málaga, just like the other towns on the Costa del Sol, was settled by Phoenicians in ancient times, around the 7th to 8th century BC. Records indicate that the area was originally named "Malaka" from the Phoenician word for "salt." Because of the area's proximity to the sea, it became an important fishing center. Fish was salted and served as a staple food source for the local inhabitants. This is also the main reason behind the town's original name.
The American Heritage Dictionary also connects mallow to melach, although I should mention that some say that the word derives from "the Greek malake/maluke 'to soften'".

I've never tried a marshmallow made from an actual marsh mallow - I'd love to try. Probably healthier, and less kashrut problems. I just hope they're sweet, not salty...

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