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The bitterness of wormwood

Q: I’m watching Wormwood, a Netflix miniseries about the mysterious death of a CIA scientist in the 1950s. I’ve read that the title refers to a passage in the Book of Revelation, but what is the origin of the word “wormwood” and its sense of bitterness and grief?

A: The word “wormwood” comes from wermod, Old English for Artemisia absinthium, a plant known as “common wormwood.” Traditionally, the plant was used as an ingredient in absinthe, vermouth, and other alcoholic beverages.

The Old English term, which has relatives in Old Saxon, Old High German, and other Germanic languages, is “of obscure origin,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) traces it back to wermōdaz, a prehistoric Germanic term for “wormwood.”

Etymologists have theorized that the Old English word comes from the bitter taste of the plant (wermo- is a prehistoric Germanic term for bitter) or from the plant’s ancient use to treat intestinal worms (wer- is the Proto Indo-European source of wyrm, Old English for “worm”).

One British philologist, Ernest Weekely, even speculates in An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1921) that wermod may have been an aphrodisiac in Anglo-Saxon times, combining the Old English wer (man) and mod (mood).

The earliest OED citation for the Anglo-Saxon version of “wormwood” is from a Latin-Old English glossary, dated around 725, in the Parker Library at the University of Cambridge: “Absinthium, wermod.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the “wormwood” spelling evolved in Middle English as a “folk etymology” (one that’s mistaken but popular), influenced by the use of the plant as a worm medicine.

The earliest Middle English spellings were “wormwode” and “wyrmewode.” The first example in the OED is from a collection of medieval medical recipes, written in the late 1300s or early 1400s: “For to makyn surripe of violet; it. of wormwode.”

The next citation is from the Promptorium Parvulorum, a Middle English-Latin dictionary from around 1440: “Wyrmwode, herbe, absinthium.”

The first OED example with the modern spelling is from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, written in the early 1590s: “When it did tast the wormwood on the nipple of my dug, & felt it bitter.”

(Juliet’s old nurse had put wormwood, an insect repellant, on her breast while sunbathing, and the baby refused to suckle.)

Oxford says the plant is “proverbial for its bitter taste. The leaves and tops are used in medicine as a tonic and vermifuge [worm remedy], and for making vermouth and absinthe; formerly also to protect clothes and bedding from moths and fleas.”

The plant’s names in German and Latin have given English as well as French the beverage names “vermouth” and “absinthe.”

Thujone, a chemical found in wormwood, is said to cause seizures and hallucinations, which has led the US and many other countries to restrict its use in absinthe, vermouth, and other beverages.

In the 16th century, the word “wormwood” took on the figurative sense of an “emblem or type of what is bitter and grievous to the soul,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example is from the Coverdale Bible of 1535: “Lest there be amonge you some rote, that beareth gall & wormwodd” (Deuteronomy 29:18).

In the 19th century, the expressions “to be wormwood” and “to be gall and wormwood” appeared, meaning “to be acutely mortifying or vexing.”

This example is from The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane, Benjamin Heath Malkin’s 1809 translation of the French novel by Alain René Le Sage: “The accounts her ladyship brought from Madrid were wormwood to the duke.”

And here’s an example from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth (1821): “His presence and his communications were gall and wormwood to his once partial mistress.”

Getting back to your question, “wormwood” appears twice in the Book of Revelation—as the name of a star that falls upon the waters, and as the bitterness caused by the falling star:

“And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.” (Revelation 8:11 in the King James Version.)

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