Wednesday, April 02, 2008

karkom and crocus

The last of the Hebrew spices I'll be discussing (for now) is karkom כרכום. It too appears in Shir HaShirim (only once 4:14), and entered Greek (it's mentioned in Homer's Illiad), and then later Latin and English as "crocus":

1398, from L. crocus, from Gk. krokos "saffron, crocus," probably of Sem. origin (cf. Arab kurkum), ult. from Skt. kunkumam. The autumnal crocus (Crocus sativa) was a common source of yellow dye in Roman times, and was perhaps grown in England, where the word existed as O.E. croh, but this form of the word was forgotten by the time the plant was re-introduced in Western Europe by the Crusaders.
However, unlike some of the other spices we've seen, there are those that claim that the word entered Sanskrit from a Semitic language instead of the other way around. For example, Klein writes in his dictionary in his entry on karkom:

Related to Aramaic כרכמא, Syriac כורכמא, Arabic kurkum, Akkadian kurkanu ( = saffron). Old Indian kunku-man (= saffron) is probably a Semitic loan word.
However, not everyone agrees that the karkom should be identified as saffron, i.e. Crocus sativus. Both Steinberg and Kaddari quote Immanuel Low as saying that karkom was Curcuma longa - better known to us as turmeric.

Saffron and turmeric are not closely related botanically (turmeric is actually a kind of ginger), but they are both used to create a yellow color (both for food and as a dye). Saffron is actually the most expensive spice in the world, but turmeric is used as a cheaper substitute. So it is possible that karkom in whatever original language simply meant "yellow". From there it became "crocus" and "curcuma".

We see this in Talmudic Hebrew, where the verb כרכם meant "to be come yellow", and when one's face was נתכרכם - he was embarrassed or angry.

Interestingly, in Modern Hebrew we find both saffron and turmeric with almost the same spelling. Karkom is crocus, and also saffron, although ze'afran זעפרן is more commonly used. Ze'afran is borrowed from the Arabic (as is the English word "saffron"), where it apparently is related to the word asfar - "yellow" (the plant safflower - another saffron substitute - also got its name from this Arabic root). Turmeric in Arabic is kurkum, which now has the same meaning in Hebrew.

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