• asafetida •
æ-sê-fe-di-dê • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. Any of several plants of the genus Ferula in the parsley family. 2. Hing, the dried, usually powdered or lumpy, strong-smelling gum from the roots of these plants, used in cooking and folk medicine.
Notes: The British spelling of this word is asafoetida. No matter the spelling, it has remained a lexical orphan without derivational family.
In Play: Asafetida is occasionally used as a herbal medicine: "The book of herbal medicine mentions some herbs that can help lower flatulence: asafetida, cumin seed, and winter savory." It is most often used in Indian cooking: "Asafetida gives dishes a super-savory element otherwise lacking in South Indian fare, which is almost exclusively vegetarian."
Word History: Today's Good Word comprises asa "gum, mastic" + fetida "stinky". Asa is a Latinized form of Old Persian aza "gum, mastic", so they say. I could not verify this in any Persian dictionary, and I don't know Persian myself. The history of fetida is hardly less hazy. Some etymologists have speculated that the origin of this word is the same as that of fimum "dung" and fumus "smoke". If so, the PIE ancestor is dheu- "smoke, dust", source also of Sanskrit dhumah "smoke", Russian dym "smoke", Lithuanian dūmai "smoke", Latvian dūksts "quagmire, swamp". The semantic connection between "smoke" and "stink" makes this origin quite possible, but the phonetic problems remain. (Now, a round of applause for returning newcomer Susan Maynard for today's worthy medicinal and culinary Good Word.)
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