In the mood for wormwood and vermouth

wormwo37-lThe following German words have different endings now, but historically speaking share a common suffix: Armut (poverty), Einöde (desert), Heimat (home, native land), Kleinod (piece of jewellery, gem) and Zierrat (ornament). In Old German, all these words had the suffix –uoti. Their etymologies are uncontroversial and can be found in the etymological dictionary of the leading lexicographical publisher in the German language area, Duden.

The same source states that the plant name Wermut (wormwood) used to be wermuota in Old German (and wermōd in Old English; wormwood is a folk etymology), but that its meaning and origin are obscure. According to the most up-to-date Dutch etymological dictionary, the first part may mean ‘bitter’ – the plant is known for its bitterness, and there are Celtic words for ‘bitter’ which may be related. (Later, in France, Wermut was used in a bitter drink named vermouth, which went on to become an international word.)

So if the Old German adjective arm (poor) could produce a noun Armut and the Old German adjective klein (now ‘small’, earlier ‘delicate, graceful’) a noun Kleinod, is it all that far-fetched to conjecture that an adjective meaning ‘bitter’ similarly may have produced a noun meaning ‘bitterness, something bitter’?

Good as it sounds, there’s probably nothing in it. The a of wermuota is different from the i in the -uoti suffix. There is also an Old German noun muot (modern meaning: courage, but related to English mood) which may muddle the picture. Like wormwood, Wermut may be an old folk etymology. So my suggestion is vulnerable on several grounds. And it’s true: amateurs such as myself usually get things wrong in etymology. But I couldn’t resist sharing the thought.

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