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Grains,  Pomegranates, Carbuncles and Ferrets

Sometimes knowing the origin of a word changes how you feel about it (could this be relevant to our interactions with humans as well as words?) Looking into the origin of “Garnet” led inevitably to Seeds and Grains from granatus which of course leads to that most metaphorical of fruits, the pomegranate. But where do Carbuncles, and for that matter ferrets come in?

The pomegranate’s name was formed by the juxtaposition of the old French word “Pome” (apple) and the Latin granatum (many seeds). Red almandine garnets (the most common type) resemble pomegranate seeds and it is indeed believed that their name comes from this similarity. Pomegranates grow on shrubs (often trimmed to grow as a tree) and they thrive in warm, dry climates. Native to Persia and Northern India, pomegranates have also been cultivated in regions around the Middle East, the Mediterranean, North Africa and Asia for millennia and were brought to the New World in the late 16th Century. Pomegranates feature in myths and legends in many cultures and feature in our cultural symbolic language - more of that in a future blog.

Garnets too have myths associated with them and medieval reports of these “carbuncles” illuminating rooms in exotic palaces and providing Noah’s Ark with light at night poses the question… Why is the same word used for a gem with almost miraculous or divine properties and a pus filled skin lesion? In fact it’s completely logical if you can follow the intermediate steps.

Carbuncle comes from the Latin carbunculus which means little glowing coal. Of course that’s an apt name for a little semi-precious stone which seems to glow from within. So when describing a hot, red swollen skin lesion one can see how the word appealed to early physicians to describe the fiery boils they were seeing. Today, in medical terms, a carbuncle is a collection of furuncles. The inquisitive mind then wonders how we arrived at that word. It doesn’t particularly help to know that the Latin word furunculus means petty thief (as an aside, petty or small is from the same root as the french petit(e)). Where could be the connection? Well, 17th century vine growers started calling knobbly growths they found on their vines furuncles as they believed they were stealing the sap from the vines… so a swelling or tumour became known as a furuncle.

The anticipation grows as we prepare to make a further etymological leap. Another word derived from the latin word fur meaning thief is Ferret. Ferrets are furry animals. Wow! Surely that means that the word ‘fur’ comes from the same root? Alas! The proud feeling of intellectual mastery recedes as fast as a ferret down a drainpipe… Fur has a Germanic root, via old French forrer to line or sheathe and forre sheath to become fur in Middle English.

The obvious answer is not always the correct one. But we can arrive at the correct answer when we look for the intermediate steps which take us there.

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Pomegranates play an important role as a symbol of righteousness in Judaism, as they supposedly contain 613 seeds, which correspond to the 613 commandments of the Torah. Thus, at Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), Jews eat this fruit one seed at a time, for as many wishes as possible to be fulfilled. Also In Jewish tradition, pomegranates are a symbol of fertility and love, winning them frequent mention in, among other biblical texts, the Song of Songs.

Just as a pomegranate contains numerous seeds, these fruits manifest and grow abundantly within the lives of believers through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Pomegranates in Christianity hold spiritual significance, symbolizing God's presence, the blood of Jesus Christ, and the fruits of…

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