wooden bowl full of turmeric powder with cut turmeric root in front of the bowl

 

You might have experienced some confusion regarding Turmeric. Many have experienced opinionated arguments about how it is even pronounced. On the East Coast of the US people pronounce it toomeric even though it is spelled with an r before the m. I think that this is because of the European accents. 


They wouldn't have used a hard r because they trill their r's and it would have been easy to miss that there was an r there because of the difficulty of trilling an r between a "u" sound an an "m" sound. Then the r would tend to get lost, especially in speaking fast. It would have been known as "Broken English".  Children of those Europeans would just grow up thinking too(r)meric was how you said it. The same thing may have happened in other Spanish speaking areas as well. 


I think this is as good a theory as any I have found, maybe better, because it's the only one that explains the two different pronunciations despite the same spelling. The first American schools of higher learning and large publishing houses had been established in the area and through this, this pronunciation could have gained legitimacy in the mainstream.


The supposed reason for the difference mentioned in online references is the disputed etymology. Some think turmeric came from Old Englishturmeryte ortarmaret. And others think it came from Latin Terra Merita through the French Terre Merite. I found that lacking because it doesn't explain why there's no r in one of the pronunciations.


On the West Coast many think that East Coasters can't read because obviously it should be pronounced TuRmeric. It's amazing how heated these arguments can get. It's like Buffalo vs. Bison and whether or not pineapple belongs on a pizza. But in this case a good dictionary can come to the rescue. Both pronunciations are correct and many dictionaries list both pronunciations as correct even though the spelling is the same.

Origin of Turmeric

The confusion of the origin of the word Turmeric is even more of an issue than its pronunciation. I went round and round for a while looking for something that made sense about this. I finally found a 13 page account of the history of this word by a William Bruce Guthrie that actually traveled along its trade routes to discover the real origin of the word. Don't worry I will spare you all the ins and outs and details. But what a taxonomic, culinary, natural healing chaos!

Turmeric is native to India and Southeast Asia. Mostly the chaos was caused by tradesmen trying to pass off turmeric as saffron and mixing up the terms to be deliberately confusing so they could make more money when selling it to the rest of the world.


Saffron comes from the anthers and stamen of a crocus flower. There are 3 to a flower. Can you imagine how many flowers it takes to make just one ounce of saffron? Anthers are those tiny male parts of a flower that produce the pollen and stamens are the threadlike filaments that hold them up. The bright yellow stigmas, the female part, are not a part of saffron. It takes a lot of flowers. Very expensive. Plus it had to be hand harvested. Very very expensive.


Turmeric and Saffron in powder form can be very hard to distinguish from each other. They can be the same yellow-reddish-gold color and have similar health benefits and they both dye everything they touch yellow. It even confused experts, let alone the regular person. The taste and smell were the only detectable difference. Turmeric has an earthy, peppery taste and it smells kind of like a mustard. Saffron is much milder.


Turmeric was considered a poor man's saffron. It was called açafrao de terra (ç makes a sort of S sound) meaning Saffron from the ground as opposed to the anthers of a crocus flower. Turmeric has ginger-like rhizomes that get boiled and dried or dried fresh and ground into the powder and is much cheaper.


France was a big importer of this açafrao from India as they called it. Some in France called it Terre Merite, meaning meritorious or deserving earth, but mostly they called it curcuma. 


Curcuma is now the name of the genus in the ginger family that contains turmeric. It is also the name of the most active ingredient in the plant, curcumin. But in actual fact it was the scientists' chagrin that the true name of the root that was compared to the ginger root was called Cyperis which was named by Pliney way back in the 1st century AD and it was completely overshadowed by the tradesmen calling it Curcuma.


Curcuma actually comes from the Arabic word for crocus flower, the source of saffron. Tradesmen can always out communicate scientists any day and the genus name became known as Curcuma by popular misinformation. They just caved and went with it for clarity. The current Latin name for turmeric is Curcuma Longa. No one ever mentions why. Maybe because they think it's obvious because the leaves are from 18 to 40 inches long.


People facing nothing but confusion when trying to find the derivation of the word Turmeric just assumed that the French Terre merite must have come from latin Terra merita and they called it a day with a guess. Who could blame them? I nearly lost my own mind trying to trace this down. But as you know, I'm stubborn.


Well about the same time as all this was going on, the Portuguese were trading in India and the Middle East and brought them all kinds of peppers. Tradesman brought the foreign names, but it became a confusion and so they coined a word meaning peppery and sharp that was patterned like the use of the word pepper in english. 


Pashto was the language commonly used in the region covering India and the Middle East. This word in Pashto covered not only true peppers but any herb that had those characteristics, peppery or sharp or spicey. That word was merich and then just like we have different peppers like red pepper, green pepper, habanero pepper, Chile pepper, scotch bonnet pepper on and on, they also had similar descriptions. 


Guess what the name for turmeric was? Tzer merich. Tzer means yellow! All the Indian friends I know all call it yellow spice. I thought they were just being simplistic. I am shocked that they were just giving a direct translation of what turmeric means- Yellow Spicey. Oh for heaven's sake. All around Robin Hood's barn for something so simple. Well there you have it, it finally makes sense!

The Turmeric Plant

Now you'd think all the confusions about turmeric would be over. Well imagine my chagrin when I looked up the description of a turmeric plant and every single account differed. They didn't even agree on what color the flowers were!


So I started finding pictures to look at. Wow. You have never seen a plant as confusing as a turmeric plant. I realized that all the descriptions were correct, but incomplete. When I put all the descriptions together it made sense.


First of all turmeric has been cultivated by the shoots coming off their rhizomes for so long that there is no known wild kind of turmeric. The theory is that it came from a hybridization of the wild “turmeric" Curcuma aromatica and another closely related undetermined plant. The fact that wild turmeric is not turmeric is just part of this wonderful confusion.


The plant is kind of a mess. It has multiple pocket-like structures that look like they are there to protect flowers, but they are empty except for a set of three flowers toward the top. Most, including The Kew, say that these flowers are sterile and create unviable seeds. One reference said that the two on the outside were sterile but the center one was fertile. Those flowers are from white to yellow.


I was totally confused when I looked up American botanical references and they all mentioned curcuma longa as having a beautiful purplish flower that was popular in flower gardens. No mention of yellow flowers at all. And I double checked. Yes they were talking about turmeric the Curcuma longa. Another word for it is Curcuma domestica.


So I researched images. Finally I saw one that had two small yellow flowers like the Asian descriptions and a big purple flower in the center towering over the plant. Ahah! That must be the one fertile flower. 

 

This reminded me of that old gag where people described an elephant from only one point of view and you couldn't tell that they were describing the same animal till you put all the descriptions together. The American botanical references of course thought the purple flower was most important and the Asians describing the plant probably harvested it for eating or medicinal purposes before it could ever develop a purple flower. Also the plants in America were in much richer soil than the arid soil in its native land and the plant probably grew faster.


It turns out that there are about 80 different plants with different color flowers that are all called Curcuma and Turmeric is also called curcuma so sometimes people call these other flowers turmeric. I even found something called Blue Turmeric. It isn't a turmeric at all, but when you cut into the rhizomes which look like turmeric it is the most beautiful blue green and it is claimed to have similar health benefits some of which are even stronger than turmeric. This is eaten as a wild plant in India.

Summary

If anyone is inclined one could probably write a few books on the whole subject of plants called turmeric that actually aren't turmeric. I realize that it's turmeric's sheer popularity that made so many people seeing something similar and not having a name for it, just naturally called it what they knew.


Now at last the confusing part is over! Thank Goodness I thought I was turning into Sherlock Holmes there for a while. Nobody disputes that Turmeric is and was widely used medicinally, as a spice and as a dye. Yay!

Check out our blog on the Benefits of Turmeric!

 

*This article is intended for informational purposes. The statements above have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Author

Rosalie Roder got her Bachelors' degrees in Chemistry and Biology from Mary Baldwin University in 1983. After graduation, with that background, her real education on natural health and healing and human potential began. It is a never ending study and she is always happy to share what she has found out so far.