Printable Version
Pronunciation: (US) mahrsh-me-low, (UK) mahsh-mæ-lêw Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. (Regional) A species of mallow, Althaea officinalis, native to marshy terrain in North Africa and Eurasia. It has pink flowers and a mucilaginous root used in herbal medicine and, at one time, in confections. 2. A spongy, sweet confection made from corn syrup, sugar, gelatin or egg whites, originally made from the root of the marshmallow; a small cake of this. 3. Something or someone who is weak, wishy-washy, spineless.

Notes: Today's word refers to a confection we eat without thinking about the complexity of its name. It comes with an adjective, marshmallowy, but with no other derivational family.

In Play: marshmallowMarshmallows are usually eaten in the US after being singed over an open fire: "Until he graduated from high school, all of Axel's birthday parties ended in roasting marshmallows in the fireplace." One of America's favorite snacks is known as smores, the ingredients of which are noted in this quote from Stephen Colbert: "Mayor Nagin, I'd like to welcome you to Washington D.C., the chocolate city with a marshmallow center, and a graham cracker crust of corruption."

Word History: Today's Good Word is obviously a compound of marsh + mallow, words which seem to have nothing to do with the object it refers to. Actually, a mallow is a plant, the roots of which were originally used to make a confection like today's marshmallow. Marsh is cousin to Dutch moeras, German Marsch, and Danish marsk, all realizations of PIE mori- "sea, standing water", which also produced Latin mare "sea", Cornish and Breton mor "sea", Irish mór "huge", Scots Gaelic mar "sea", and Russian more "sea". We aren't quite sure of the PIE origin of mallow, but it seems to have produced Latin malva "mallows", source of Modern French mauve "mallow; mauve", and Spanish, Portuguese and Italian malva "mallow; mauve". In ancient Greek it emerged as malakhe "mallow". (Now let's thank Tony Bowden of London for his gift of today's ostensibly bizarrely mismatched Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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