The last two weeks, we saw that the etymology of Chernobyl is quite a bit less exciting as the recent history of the area would suggest. Instead of the associating it with environmental disaster, many cultures with access to the herb used it in a variety of beneficial, medicinal applications.

In eastern Asia, combustion of the local variety of Artemisia was common practice. Especially in China, Korea, and Japan it was used in the practice of moxibustion, as it came to be known in Europe. The first part of the compound is probably a contracted Latinization of the Japanese mogusa. In this particular treatment the herb is burnt as a part of acupuncture: a needle pressed into the right node of the body is heated by combusting the weed, which stimulates the circulation of qi and blood.

In Europe, the weed wasn’t burnt, but it was used as a form of medicine as well. In his Natural History (26.89), the 1st century Roman aristocrat-cum-encyclopedia Pliny (the Elder!), for example, noted the following with regards to Artemisia:

Artemisiam et elelisphacum alligatas qui habeat viator negatur lassitudinem sentire (Read more →)

A traveler (viator) was to put a twig of the herb (or of a type of sage, elelisphacum) in his sandals (alligatas) to relieve fatigue (lassitudinem). The motive of Artemisia as a remedy against fatigue, was also translated into a Christian context: the weed was known as Saint John’s weed, or for example in Dutch Sint-Janskruid, because the saint was associated with travelling, as he spread the gospel during his journeys.

The German and Dutch etyma, Bei-fuß / bij-voet lit. ‘at-foot’, seem to tie into foot-related issues as well. Although the literal interpretation of the words may suggest otherwise, they have nothing to do with feet etymologically. These words received the folk-etymology treatment through association with aforementioned medical practice. That means: the original formation had nothing to do with feet, and the intervocalic –f/v- was probably epenthesized into an older form of, for example, Old High German bībōz / pīpōz, going back to Proto-Germanic *bautan ‘to beat’. The folk-etymology seems to have occurred in Middle Dutch and Middle High German, e.g. biuoet and bivuoz. The idea is that it refers to the need to pound the herb, before it could be applied as medicine.

Across the channel, people don’t speak of “at-feet”, but rather of “midget-root”, or mugwort, as it was believed to repel nasty insects (people who have ever been to Scotland, know what a nuisance they can be).

The second half of the compound stems from Proto-Germanic *wurtiz, having meanings ranging from “root, herb, vegetable, plant, spice,”, attested in, for example, German Wurz ‘root’, or würzen ‘to season’, and Dutch wortel ‘root, carrot’.

The word is also found in a 9th-century Old English healing spell, the Nine Herbs Charm (lines 1-6 on mugwort) attested in the Lacnunga. There it is found as mucgwyrt, and it is told to be effective against poison (attre), contagion (onflyge), and against a certain loathsome one / who travels through the land (þa{m} laþan / ðe geond lond færð).

Artemisia was not just a common plant, it was embedded in many herbalist traditions around the world.