A ginger nut

M. J. Driscoll

“he would touch at its from time to other, the red eye of his fear in saddishness, to ensign the colours by the beerlitz in his mathness and his educandees to outhue to themselves in the cries of girlglee: gember! inkware! chonchambre! cinsero! zinnzabar! tincture and gin!”

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, p. 182

Ginger, the rhizome of the herbaceous plant Zinziber officinale, has been cultivated for millennia for use in cooking and for medicinal purposes — in fact, ginger is in all likelihood the world’s oldest spice. Charak, the ancient Indian sage of medicine, said of it: “Adrakam sarva kandanaam” (‘every good quality is found in ginger’). Henrik Harpestreng mentions ginger in his Urtebog, saying that it “hæuær thæn sammæ kraft. innæn lækidom thær pipær hauær”. Among other things, ginger “dughær [...] siuk liuær. af wætæ oc kuldæ. Oc thæt løsær blæsdæ innyluæ. oc syknæth innæn maghæ.” (ed. M. Kristensen, København 1908-20, p. 37). Such things are good to know, especially now, round Christmas, when one so often suspects that one’s liuær is siuk and not a few of one’s other innyluæ may indeed be a bit blæsdæ.

The Danish word for ginger, ingefær, was borrowed into Icelandic as ingifer or engifer, the latter now standard. In medieval sources, however, the form found is in(i)fri, for example in the passage in the 16th-century Icelandic “Medical miscellany” (Dublin, Royal Irish Academy 23 D 43) corresponding to the passage from Harpestreng just cited: “þat er gott vid lifur. vætu. kulda ok leyser blasinn innifle ok siukleika j maga” (ed. Larsen, Oslo 1931, p. 95). Elsewhere in the miscellany, in a passage derived from the Antidotarium Nicolai, we are told that ginger “æser matuliga mann. hvort sem þat er dryckit eda etith med raudu vine.” Skál fyrir því.

The names for this noble condiment vary more than is the rule, but all go back, via Prakrit singabera, to the Sanskrit shrngavera, thought to mean ‘horn-body’, from the stem çrnga, ‘horn’, presumably owing to a perceived likeness to a deer’s antlers, although Sir Henry Yule, author of the Anglo-Indian dictionary Hobson-Jobson, published in 1886, discounts the Sanskrit ‘horn’ origin as folk-etymology and derives the word from a Dravidian form of the Malayalam word inchi-ver, inchi meaning ‘root’ (which is curious, since Zingiber officinale is a rhizome and not a root, but then perhaps the Dravidians did not realise this).

In Greek the word became zyggíberis, and in Latin zinziber (Late Latin gingiber), which gave rise to the forms found in the modern Romance languages: French gingembre, Italian zinzero, Spanish jengibre, Portuguese gengibre. The English word derives directly from the Late Latin, as can be seen from its earliest recorded form 3ingifer. In the other Germanic languages the initial sibilant was lost, resulting in Old High German ingeber or ingewer, modern German Ingwer (Dutch, however, has gember, probably borrowed from Portuguese), from which the Scandinavian forms (Danish and Norwegian ingefær, Swedish ingefära) derive. Dialectically, however, the vowel following the velar nasal + stop was lost, resulting in assimilation of the following labial; hence German Imber beside the more usual Ingwer. This form was then borrowed into the (North) Slavic languages, with Polish imb(i)er (older ingbier), Ukrainian imbyr’, Russian imbír’ (older inbír’).

At the other end of the Mediterranean final /r/ was replaced by /l/, as in Hebrew zangabîl, Arabic and Persian zanjabîl (the word is used in the Qu’ran), Turkish zencefil. The Turkish word was borrowed into Bulgarian as zindzhifìl, in older sources, now dzhindzhifìl, with assimilation of the initial to the internal /dzh/, as in French.

And as varied as the forms of the name are, so too are the uses to which ginger is put. Eaten fresh, fried or boiled, dried and powdered, it is used in many ways. Here in north-western Eurasia (and its former colonies) it is most commonly used as a flavouring for the non- or slightly alcoholic drinks ginger ale and ginger beer, and in cakes, ginger bread, and biscuits, ginger nuts. I am, I confess, a bit of a ginger nut myself, but incline rather to more southern and eastern Eurasian uses for ginger. I am especially fond of the flavour of ginger combined with garlic, allium sativum, which according to another old Indian saying is “as good as ten mothers”. The various names for (and culinary possibilities of) garlic are interesting enough to warrant a separate study, but meanwhile: the Romance languages have forms deriving from the Latin alium, viz. French ail, Portuguese alho, Italian aglio, Spanish ajo; Danish hvidløg, Icelandic hvítlaukur, Norwegian hvitløk and Swedish vitlök refer to the colour, as does Serbian beli luk, literally ‘white leek’. In most of the other Slavic languages, however, e.g. Russian chesnok, the name is related to ches-, ‘tear, cleave’, referring to the clovenness of garlic (unlike onion), cf. Old High German chlobolouch, Modern German Knoblauch, Dutch knoflook; the English word, Old English gârléak, literally ‘spear-leek’ (borrowed into Old Norse as geirlaukr), refers to the shape of the individual cloves.

And anyone familiar with Popeye (known, for some reason, as Stjáni blái in Icelandic, and, for some other reason, as Skipper Skræk in Danish, Karl-Alfred in Swedish, Braccio di Ferro in Italian) will know of the beneficial value of spinach, Spinacea oleracea (German Spinat, Dutch spinazie, Yiddish (and Romanian) shpinat, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic spinat, Swedish spenat, Finnish pinaatti, French épinard, Greek spanaka, Italian spinacio, Portuguese espinafre, Spanish espinaca, Bulgarian spanak; the ultimate origin is obscure but has been sought in Persian or Arabic; it is espenaj or esfenaj in the former, sabanaj or sabanij in the latter). So a dish consisting of these three ingredients could not help but be good for one. And it so happens that just such a dish is found widely in the Arab world, on the Indian subcontinent, in the Caucasus and many other places. At its simplest, it goes like this:

oil (or ghee)
3-4 cm piece of fresh ginger coarsely grated
2-3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 kilo fresh spinach, stems trimmed, washed and well drained
salt and freshly ground black pepper

The ginger and garlic should be browned in a little oil for a few minutes, but under no circumstances be allowed to burn. The spinach should then be added and sautéed until wilted. Season with salt and pepper and stir until all ingredients are well mixed. For something a bit more exotic one can add chillies, cloves, cinnamon, cumin and mustard seeds, or the mixture of spices known as garam masala. The Georgians, who live longer than anyone else, are credited with the invention of viticulture and whose women are of legendary beauty (three good reasons to follow their example, I should have thought), add fresh coriander leaves and yoghurt, which produces a truly excellent result. All of these, incidentally, go nicely “etith med raudu [eda hvitu] vine”; but then most things do.

A rhizome of ginger.


© M. J. Driscoll   This article first appeared in Jocoseria Arna-Marianiana: Seksogtyve udvalgte dels kortvillige, dels alvorlige Historier, hvorved Mariane Overgaard kan opbygges (Copenhagen, 2001).

I am grateful to Ivan Derzhanski of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Sofia, for supplying me with some of the etymological information found here.

The photograph was taken — initially without permission, although this has subsequently been graciously granted — from Gernot Katzer’s truly wonderful Gewürzseiten (also available in an English version).