More on Carrots3/Poison Hemlock

Steve Long X99Lynx at
Mon Mar 18 21:44:50 UTC 2002

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
This is the third part of "More on Carrots."

- Sometimes we may interpret names in a way that conforms more to 
expectations that any possible reality.  An example is the etymology that 
finds the word "carrot" coming from "Greek karton, carrot (from its hornlike 
shape)." (From the American Heritage D.E.L, in its appendix on IE roots.)  

Obviously, there were many, many, many plants with horn-like roots in ancient 
Greece.  And it seems a fairly large number of them either were edible or 
could be made edible.  And it looks like the root of the carrot may not even 
have been an important part of the plant at the time, compared to the very 
horn-like radish or fennel.

There may be a better alternative explanation of the word carrot.

This is the Lewis & Short entry for <ka_ro:ton>: 
"carrot, dub. in Diph.Siph. ap. Ath.9.371e; but, = gleanings of grapes, 
PLond.1821.202."  The gleaning of seeds, leaves or flowers might explain the 
original meaning of the carrot word.  <karo:> is given as the Greek word for 
the caraway plant or seed.  Other plants that are "gleaned" like fennel and 
anise are also commonly described as looking like the wild carrot and are in 
fact related.

But there is another group of words that <ka_ro:ton> fits very well into.  
And those include <ka_roo:> , plunge into deep sleep or torpor, stupefy; 
<ka_ro:tikos>, stupefying, soporific, applied to 'pharmaka'; <karo:sis> 
heaviness in the head, drowsiness; <ka_ro:dês>, drowsy, heavy.

Now we might think that all these drugged-effect words would have nothing to 
do with the carrot, IF we didn't know two other facts.

One is that Queen Anne's Lace and carrot plants in general also have a very 
close resemblance to a close relative - the poison hemlock.  One only has to 
search on the web with both names to see all the warnings (some from US state 
government agencies) about how easy it is to confuse QAL with Hemlock for 
those who gather wild edibles.

The second fact is that Hemlock was not just used as a poison to kill 
Socratic types by ancient Greeks.  Pliny goes on at length about hemlock's 
use as a recreational drug throughout the empire, particularly as some kind 
of a counterbalance to the intoxication of wine.  Moreover, modern 
descriptions of hemlock "poisoning" are quite similar to those used to define 
the <karoo:> words mentioned above.

So perhaps it's possible that "carrot" actually started as the name for a 
very similar looking plant -- the poison hemlock -- used as an intoxicant.  

One can only guess how the switch happened.  Perhaps it was confusion caused 
by lost drawings or descriptions that did not distinguish enough between the 
two plants.  Perhaps it was a marketplace trick that substituted the less 
harmful daucus carota for hemlock as a pharmaceutical wonder.  But the switch 
is probably no more surprising than the one that transferred, centuries later 
in America, the "helmlock" name itself to a totally dissimilar, tall, 
yew-like evergreen tree.

Steve Long 

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