Word Stories - November 1, 2021 - 3 min

Where Magic and Medicine Meet

The history of antidotes and elixirs is a world where myth, magic, and medicine intermingle. Take the “Poison King” Mithridates VI of Pontus, for example, who famously made himself immune to poisoning by systematically building a tolerance for every known poison, and mixing over 50 of them into a secret daily elixir. Later Greek and Roman recipes based on his successes contributed to the emergence of medicinal science, but for Mithridates himself, the medicine was inseparable from the magic of his royal shamans. Judging from the fact that Mithridates also famously took the time to learn all 22 languages of his kingdom, he would have loved the druidic magic of Antidote’s writing remedies too. In any case, the 25th anniversary of Antidote seems like a perfect time to explore the ways in which antidotes have fired the human imagination and enriched our language.

antidote

The roots of the English word antidote stretch back through French and Latin to Ancient Greek. The Greek word antidoton literally means “something given against”, by adding the prefix anti- (“against”) to doton, the neuter past participle of didonai (“to give”). An antidoton was therefore a preparation administered to neutralize a poison or to combat a sickness. Latin borrowed the word as antidotum, and used it in the same sense.

When French in turn adopted the word as antidote, its usage notably included the figurative connotation of “a remedy” for non-medical emergencies, like moral or psychological problems. English later followed suit, by borrowing and using antidote in both medical and metaphorical senses. B. Traheron’s English edition of de Vigo’s Most Excellent Workes of Chirurgerye (1543) therefore defines “Antidota” as literal physical “medicines to be receyued within the bodye”, while the Christian theologian Veron (1548) bills his writings as a spiritual “Antidotus or counterpoysen agaynst the teachings of the Anabaptistes”. By the same token, our very own language correction software called Antidote earned its name by providing the public with a ready remedy to common writing problems.

bezoar

The English noun bezoar is derived from the Maghrebi Arabic bezuwār (possibly via the French bézoard) and thereby ultimately the Arabic bāzahr and Middle Persian pādzahr. These words all refer to a stony accretion of undigested materials taken from an animal’s gut and used as an antidote to poison. Such “stones” were common in medieval Arabic medicine and magic, and they were very popular in Europe from the 11th century to the 18th. Some of the earliest appearances of bezoar in English seem to refer to marvellous rocks of any kind (T. Norton, The Ordinall of Alchimy, 1477), but the more faithful etymological sense of “antidote” soon dominated, with English medicinal texts using bezoar to describe the stony byproducts of animal digestion used for curative purposes (N. Monardes, Joyfull Newes out of the Newfound World, 1580). By extension, the word bezoar came to be used in referring to any kind of counter-poison (J. Gerard, The Herball, 1597) and eventually metaphorical “antidotes” like love or courage as well (as seen, for example, in the English edition of V. Malvezzi’s Romulus and Tarquin, 1637).

mithridate

The English word mithridate can evoke a universal antidote to poison, a miracle drug, or even a panacea. Thomas Elyot’s Castell of Helthe (1541) accordingly defines a mithridate as a “medicine ageynst poyson”, and the home remedies collected in Estienne and Liébault’s Countrie Farme (1600) include a recipe for making “a mithridate against the plague”. By extension, writers have also used the word in metaphorical ways, expounding for example on love as “the great mithridate of the heart” (Robert Southey, The Doctor, 1834).

The roots of the word stretch back through French to Latin. In Middle French, a mithridate was an “antidote”, based on an Old French word for scorpion sting remedies (metridaton). The Old French term was based in turn upon the post-classical Latin mithridatum, and ultimately thereby the Classical Latin Mithridātīus, meaning literally “related to Mithridates”. The association of antidotes with the Hellenistic ruler Mithridates VI comes from his famous solution to the common problem of rulers being poisoned by their enemies. MIthridates was said to have rendered himself immune to poisoning, by building up a tolerance to all the known poisons, and also taking daily doses of a mysterious universal antidote of his own invention. This is how substances thought to neutralize poisons came to be called mithridates, and the process of making oneself immune to poison came to be known as mithridatism.

treacle

The roots of the English word treacle reach back through French and Latin to Greek. In Old French, a triacle was an antidote against animal venom, based on the popular Latin triacula and thereby the Ancient Greek thēriaka/thēriakē, which had the same meaning. The same Greek root can also be seen in the English word theriac, meaning “antidote”. The ultimate root seems to be the Ancient Greek thērion (“wild animal”). English borrowed triacle from Old French, and maintained its medicinal sense by using it to describe healing salves and concoctions (Chaucer, Pardoner’s Prology, 1386).

The new English word triacle/treacle was, however, also soon used to refer to the kinds of medicinal plants used to make such antidotes. Herbalists began to write about the healing properties of churl’s treacle or English treacle, for example (J. Trevisa, De Proprietatibus Rerum, 1398). Still later, the sense of “salve” or “concoction” led people to use the word treacle in talking about the syrupy byproducts of sugar production (W. Westmacott, Theolobotonologia, 1694), and by metaphorical extension any kind of sickly sweet talk (T. Smollett, Humphry Clinker, 1771). Over the centuries, this non-medicinal sense of the word has come to dominate. When modern English speakers talk about eating treacle, they’re almost certainly talking about a dessert, not an elixir used to counteract animal venom.

This article was concocted by
the linguists at Antidote

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