April 30, 2014

Case File #014.04.30: EMBALM

When embalm first appeared in the English lexicon around 1385, it was spelled enbaumen (or sometimes embawmen), and this makes sense when you consider that the verb was derived from the Old French embaumer, which meant “to preserve a corpse through the use of spices or other substances.” In the mid-fifteenth century, the form of the English word changed to enbalmen, with the u (or w ) being replaced by an l due to the influence of the Latin balsamum, meaning “balm.” (Latin was kind of a big thing among the learned during the Renaissance, what with a lot of stuff from classical antiquity having just been rediscovered and all.) The spelling of the English finally shifted to the current embalm during the early sixteenth century, at which time the verb also took on the secondary meanings of “to fix (someone or something) in a static state” and “to infuse with a sweet or pleasant fragrance,” though the olfactory one is now considered archaic and generally used only by poets.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

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