herb basilI was making my salad for lunch this morning and my husband brought me in some fresh basil.  It smelt wonderful – a breath of Italy, which was lovely, as I’ve spent a lot of the summer wishing we’d gone there again.

As I chopped it, I started thinking about words with basil in them, wondering how they are connected (I know, an esoteric pursuit, but if you work in the translation business it’s an occupational hazard!)

Basil, basilicum, basilisk, basilica – how do they relate?  Well, the proper Latin name for basil is Ocimum basilicum, so that’s easy.  But then I remembered reading about basilicum ointment used on horses in the 19th century, and wondered if it contained basil.

A quick search revealed several references to Basilicon ointment for the treatment of wounds, which includes rosin, from conifer resin.  A longer search led me to Basilicum ointment, which seems to be the archaic form – and I found a recipe from a book called Domestic Medicine from 1785, containing ‘yellow wax, white resin and frankincense’ plus the main ingredient of hog’s lard – but not a hint of basil.

It was Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century herbalist, who connected them for me:  ‘an herb of Mars and under the Scorpion, and therefore called Basilicon’.  He also related it to Basilisk.

Why?  Because the basilisk was reputed to be the king of serpents (able to kill with one glance) – and basil comes from the Greek basileus, meaning king.

It’s still considered the ‘king of herbs’ by many cooks – royally deserved, in my opinion.  That’s enough weight for a few small leaves to carry.  As for Basil Fawlty – that’s a whole other story about use of language!

Tess Wright, Chief Executive

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