Verbs Are in Season

This Friday’s Word of the Week shows that we don’t have to have our noses in dusty old books (as fun as that can be!) to learn new and interesting words. I didn’t encounter this word while reading; instead, it comes to me from the culinary world.

I went to lunch this week with my boyfriend. It was a rare treat and so we chose a restaurant we’ve been wanting to try for a few months. The food was wonderful; the restaurant was one of these Support Your Local Farm establishments, so the food was fresh and in season. In fact, they even had a list of foods that are in season now in this region. I was very excited to see that black truffles are in season because there are few things that I love quite like black truffles.

As I scanned the list after eating some delicious cod cakes and green salad, I saw that salsify is in season. I remembered seeing it on the menu: Black Truffle Salsify Soup.  Despite my love of truffles, I had decided against the soup because I wasn’t so sure I would enjoy the combination of the earthy truffle with something I imagined involved tomatoes and cilantro. Now, seeing the word on the list of local, in-season produce, it suddenly hit me that I had parsed the word incorrectly when I read the name of the soup. My brain had turned it into salsa. Now that I knew it was actually one product that grew in spring, I wanted to know exactly what it was.

Not having a smart phone, I knew it would have to wait until I got home to my computer, so instead I had a little fun with the word while we waited for the almond bread pudding and espressos we had ordered for dessert.

“Hey, I wonder how you salsify a soup. Do you serve it in a sombrero?” I asked my boyfriend.

He just squinted at me the way he does when he knows I’m getting silly.

“Or maybe you have to have a mariachi band playing while it’s cooking?” I snapped my fingers over my head.

He squinted a little more. I clearly wasn’t getting through. I gave it one last shot.

“Perhaps the only way to really salsify a soup is to dance when you’re eating it.” I gave a little shimmy.

That usually does the trick. He broke.

“Because it has to be a verb, you know,” I said when he stopped laughing. “It has a verbal suffix! I’m not making this up!”

I really wasn’t. I knew that salsify isn’t really is a verb, but it does look like one. The suffix of a word denotes the part of speech: for example, -ness forms a noun, -ish creates an adjective, and -ify indicates a verb. It means “to make something x”, thus creating the conditions for my corny jokes about salsify – to make something a salsa. Of course, I decided to use the meaning of salsa that refers to the dance, not the topping for a tortilla chip.

It was, however, the sauce that I had initially mistaken salsify for, so I wondered why the two words looked so similar. The wondering stopped the moment the bread pudding arrived. (Sometimes dessert trumps linguistic curiosity!) It didn’t go away, though. Later at home, I looked up salsify and found that it is a plant that has lovely flowers, sweet edible greens, and an edible root.

I’ll be honest – it was a bit anticlimactic, considering the spicy Latin flair I’d attributed to it at lunch. The flowers are pretty, but the hairy roots look quite unappetizing. I maintained hope; I like root vegetables and I know that something doesn’t have to look pretty to taste good. It was therefore a bit disconcerting to read on another site that it is sometimes called oyster plant because of its faint taste of oysters, which I despise. So much for the soup, truffle or no truffle.

I looked up the origin of the word to compare it to salsa to see if there was any connection. It turns out, there may be. Both words go back to the Latin word for salt (from etymonline.com):

salsify: biennial plant, 1670s, from Fr. salsifis, earlier sercifi, sassify (16c.), probably from It. erba salsifica, from O.It. salsifica, of uncertain origin, perhaps from L. sal “salt” + fricare “to rub.”

Salsa, both the word and the food, is essentially sauce, and the etymologies are connected:

salsa: kind of sauce, 1846; kind of dance, 1975, from Sp., lit. “sauce,” from V.L. *salsa “condiment” (see sauce). In Amer.Sp. esp. used of a kind of relish with chopped-up ingredients; the music so called from its blend of Latin jazz and rock styles.

sauce: mid-14c., from O.Fr. sauce, sausse, from noun use of L. salsa, fem. sing. or neut. pl. of salsus “salted,” from pp. of Old L. sallere “to salt,” from sal (gen. salis) “salt” (see salt). Meaning “something which adds piquancy to words or actions” is recorded from c.1500; sense of “impertinence” first recorded 1835 (see saucy, and cf. sass). Slang meaning “liquor” first attested 1940. Colloquial saucebox “one addicted to making saucy remarks” is from 1580s.

So what we have here is a linguistic connection between this mysterious plant I just learned about and being impertinent. Originally, salsify possibly referred to being rubbed with salt, or perhaps causing saltiness by rubbing. And salsa, also referring to something having been salted, is connected to sauce, which of course has its alternate connotations. Saucy can refer to someone with a sassy attitude, or a spirited temperament (or – dare I say? – an affinity for salsa dancing). Of course, this brings us full circle, because as we see above, sassify was a 16th century variant of salsify. Was this plant possibly used to spice things up a little bit? To add a little life to a dish or to a Saturday night? To give a little shimmy to otherwise bland foods or evenings?

I believe it wasn’t as much of a stretch as I thought it was when the silliness first took hold after seeing the word at the restaurant. In fact, I was on to something, whether I knew it or not. Verbs really are in season, and as the weather warms up and we become restless, salsify is just the sort of verb we need!

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