Sardonian or sardonic: a botanico-etymological inquiry

Searching for the origins of words leads one to interesting results. A case in point are the related words sardonian and sardonic.

According to Collins’ English dictionary, sardonian means “a person who flatters with harmful or deadly intent” while Webster’s (1913 Ed.) defines sardonic as:” Forced; unnatural; insincere; hence, derisive, mocking, malignant, or bitterly sarcastic; – applied only to a laugh, smile, or some facial semblance of gayety.” For Webster’s, sardonian is an older word, synonym of sardonic.

The word sardonic, attested in English first in 1638 in Sir Thomas Herbert’s Works, was borrowed from the French sardonique ( Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, sub nom. Sardonic 1988). The French word sardonien appeared first in 1579 in the book of poems Regrets by Joachin du Bellay and then in the works of the famous physician Ambroise Paré (1580 Œuvres, éd. J.-Fr. Malgaigne, t. 3, p. 334 et 385). Both authors used it in the expression ris sardonien (sardonian laughter). The word sardonien became sardonique shortly after.

The word was borrowed from the Latin sardonicus risus itself a Latinization of the Greek Σαρδόνιος (sardonios=bitter or scornful laughter). The Greek word designated originally someone from Sardinia, hence the surname Sardone ( the word came to take the meaning of bitter or scornful goes back to Homer (Oxford Dictionary of Fables and Phrases). Homer knew of the plant called sardonion or herba sardonia in Latin, i.e., the sardonian herb , a species of ranunculus (ranunculus sceleratus or apium risus), which when eaten or drunk causes facial convulsions resembling those that accompany bitter or scornful laughter ( Chambers, supra,  A. Rey Dictionnaire historique de la langue française sub nom. sardonique).The original Greek comes from  the Indo-European root*sward=laughter found also in Celtic languages such as Cornish ( hwerthin) and Middle Breton ( huersin) meaning to laugh .

The cure for ingestion of sardonion was given thusly by the most important Greek physician of his day ( before 700 B.C.) Paulus Aegineta  : “[i]t will be proper to give honied water and milk, with embrocations and lubrications of the whole body, by calefacient remedies; and to have recourse to hot-baths of hot oil and water, and to anoint properly and rub them after the baths..”( The Seven Books of Paulus Aegineta translated from the Greek by Francis Adams, vol.2,p.235-6 London 1844). One can think of other pleasant uses of such a cure without having to deal with any sardonion or sardonian unpleasantness.


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