The Grammarphobia Blog

Spicy language

Q: Does anyone anywhere pronounce the first “r” n turmeric?

A: We’ve written before about the pronunciations of “basil” and “cumin,” but until now nobody has asked us about “turmeric.”

As it happens, you can correctly pronounce “turmeric” either with or without sounding that first “r”: TUR-mer-ik or TOO-mer-ik.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) gives both as standard pronunciations. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives those two plus a third, whose first syllable sounds like TYOO.

Turmeric, a spice made from the powdered rhizome of an East Indian plant (Curcuma longa), is an important ingredient in curry powder. The crushed rhizome is also used in yellow dyes.

At our house, we use curry quite a bit, but we don’t often have occasion to use turmeric by itself so it doesn’t come up much in conversation. We had to stop and think how we pronounce it (Stewart doesn’t say it at all; Pat says TOO-mer-ik).

The etymology of “turmeric” is obscure, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It doesn’t help that similar words have been used for a tree and for the powdered roots of other plants.

Since the word came into English in the mid-16th century, it’s been spelled all kinds of ways (“tamaret,” “tormarith,” “turmerocke,” “tarmanick,” “tarmaluk”). The final “t” in the earliest English spellings eventually became “k” or “c.”

The earliest spellings, the OED says, “resemble a recorded French terre mérite and medieval or modern Latin terra merita ‘deserving or deserved earth.’ ”

The dictionary notes that the 19th-century French lexicographer Émile Littré said the powder was known by the Latin or French name in commerce. However, Oxford adds, “The reason and origin of this Latin and French appellation are obscure.”

The OED dismisses one theory of the origin: ”Some have suggested a corruption of the Persian-Arabic name kurkum ‘saffron,’ whence Latin curcuma, French curcuma, and Spanish curcuma; but the change seems too unlikely.”

Now that you’ve called our attention to turmeric, we think we’ll have some curried shrimp tonight.

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