How Did Horseradish Get Its Name?

There are two leading postulates on how the horseradish got its name, and both seem very logical. 

This article explores the two postulates in detail as well as the origins of the horseradish itself and other popular plant species that have been identified with the horse prefix.

The two leading postulates

1) radish just wasn’t enough

When we go back to the lingual roots of the word radish, we arrive at the Latin word Radix, which basically means root. So radish is derived from the word radix which means root. Easy so far right?

Now, the theory is saying that simply leaving the plant’s name as “radish” alone would do no good because radish would literally translate to root (for whose meaning can be ascribed to nearly a ton of other root vegetables out there, for instance ginger and parsnip).

So there is no way that radish should, alone, gulp up a word which doesn’t even do much to describe it. 

In order to combat this problem, a prefix word needs to be attached to the radish term which would not only give it a renewed identity, but also help to better describe the root vegetable.

As at the time of the 1500 and 1600s, the word “horse” was commonly used figuratively to describe “strength” in plants and animals. And because the horseradish fits well with the description, it got tagged with the prefix horse and that was how the name horseradish came to be.

It’s good to note that there are indeed many other vegetables (in the 16th century) that had the horse prefix attached to them because of the way that they felt in the hand or looked. That, in addition, makes the theory quite plausible. 

2) Everything started with the word “Meer”

This theory turns focus on the corruption and/or confusion of languages by the English speakers — a theme which is quite common throughout history.

The Germans basically called the radish Meerrettich which, according to some sources, means “sea radish” and according to others means “strong radish” or “more radish”.

Apparently, the English speakers living in Central Europe at that time confused or ended up corrupting the Meer part which for the sake of laying out the first assumption of the theory, meant “sea”, with “mare” which implied a horse.

Eventually, it was turned to horseradish.

Going by the second meaning of Meerrettich which is “strong radish” or “more radish”, It could easily be said that the word “strong” or “more” I.e big was substituted for the term “horse” given it’s figurative presence in the language of the 1500’s already.

Quick note

There are many instances where the prefix horse is used to qualify a noun which could be an animal, fruit or any other “thing”, and while in some cases it makes allusion to the strength of the particular subject, in other cases, it implies an entirely different meaning.

Take for instance the horse chestnut, which got the horse prefix by virtue of the fact that it was used to cause relief for horses that suffered from cough or chest congestion.

Another closely related example we can look into is that of the “horsefly” which is called so because it is commonly found in areas dominated by horses.

In other regions as well, horse fly has many different names such as moose fly, buffalo fly, and even elephant fly, all making reference to the fact that the insects are found in areas dominated by these animals.

There are many other plants named with the horse prefix too

The horseradish is not the only entry in the plant kingdom that has the hose prefix attached to it. There are other plants too which have such prefix added to them for a variety of reasons. Let us explore some of the most popular.

Horse parsley

According to sources, the English name for the horse parsley is Alexander, and this was born from the corruption of the Latin term (olus ater) which means black herb.

The horse name came later on as a vernacular that could’ve made reference to the rigid nature of the plant.

Horse apple

The horse apple could’ve possibly gotten its name from the fact that it had a very rigid appearance which contracts with what the normal human brain associates with fruit — soft, plum and fleshy.

But it could also have gotten the nickname from the fact that it looked like a hose dropping – given the fact that the term “horse apple” itself meant a dried horse dropping.

Horse chestnut

According to many sources, the horse chestnut most likely got its name from the fact that it was used as a remedy to cure horses that suffered from cough and other chest related problems.

Horse mint

The horse mint is a plant that is naturally larger and coarse when compared to other types of mint plants. Its larger and coarse nature could have been the sole reason as to why it was referred to as a horse mint.

Where did the horseradish originate from?

The horseradish originated from the southern and eastern part of Russia and Ukraine respectively. It was used a very long time ago as a medicinal plant to cure various types of health issues such as back pain, menstrual pains and cough, and it was also used in the culinary world to serve as condiment which spice up beef. 

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