This folk etymology of "panacea" is wrong, right?

Flipping through one of my Foxfire books this morning (Foxfire 3, if you’re interested), I found the following quote in the chapter on Ginseng:

Now, as the latin binomial is Panax cinquefolium, and it’s often shortened in slang to “Panax cinq,” pronounced “Panax sink”, I can sorta see where she’s coming from. But really? Wasn’t Panacea a Greek goddess, long before this plant got its scientific name?

“is believed by many” is a heck of a cop-out, of course. It is believed by many that pineapples grow on trees, but that doesn’t seem to affect bromeliads much. Still, it’s a fun little tidbit I wouldn’t mind sharing with my students, but not if it’s, y’know, wrong.

What’s the Straight Dope on the origin of “panacea”?

The Online Etymology Dictionary and Wikipedia support your position. Trust their veracity at your own risk.

According to the OED:

So Panacea was a Greek god, from “All-healing.” However, the “panacea” meaning “a cure-all” may have come from the name of a plant.

BTW, this is an urban legend. “Folk etymology” is something else entirely – the changing of a word’s spelling or pronuciation in order to match it to existing words. For instance, the French “tortue” becoming “turtle” because the word already existed as the name of a bird (two of them, and a partridge in a pear tree).

Oh, hey, thanks! I feel like one of those folks who’s been saying “for all intensive purposes” all these years. :smack: I thought folk etymology was etymology (that is, the origins of words) that was speculated and reported by, y’know, folks, as opposed to actual supported and documented study. Ignorance fought.

I don’t suppose anyone knows how Panax cinq. got its name, do you? It’s just so neat that it is a panacea (or touted as a panacea) and it sounds like panacea, but I suppose it’s just coincidence. Could it have been named after Panacea or panacea somehow?

The word Panax for the herb and panacea to mean “all-healing” can be found in tandem as early as 1714, using Google Book search.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find it available even earlier in a language other than English.

Not that this proves anything one way or the other.

Oooooo! “The juice of the herb called Panax, or Panacea, so called [something not in English] from healing all diseases…” and a reference to Pliny. So it does look as though it’s not entirely coincidental, after all. I’m intrigued!


A Haiku:

Why Not cry out, “cite?”
Ignorance not fought! Transferred!
Both uses are fine.

Feel free to re-learn that, it means that too .

EDIT: Come to think of it, though, that usage might itself be a folk etymology, in the other sense. :eek:

Oy. Now my brain hurts.
If only there was an herb that could treat nearly anything…

Not a coincidence at all. The scientific name Panax comes from the same root, the Greek meaning “heals all”.

But this doesn’t mean that “panacaea” comes from Panax, rather that Panax was given that name because it was reputed to have the properties of a panacaea.

By the way, it’s Panax quinquefolius, not cinquefolium.

I missed the edit window, but the scientific name Panax was applied to ginseng by the man himself, Linnaeus, in 1753.


Actually, WhyNot, you were right in the first place (as Peak Banana said), and RealityChuck is wrong. This is not a legend, urban or otherwise, because there is no story. An “urban legend” is a believable narrative that circulates in contemporary society. In common usage, however, both “urban legend” and “folklore” are used to mean “untrue belief,” as above. I wish people would stop doing that, but they won’t.

As for folk etymology, we might contemplate the randy, goat-legged god Pan, who is sometimes pictured with a flute, a hot babe, and an ax. Specifically, the Pan ax. Folk like me make up stuff like that, just to etymologize folk like you. :wink:

Well, you are right, WhyNot; Miss Lounsberry was pretty sadly misinformed. As said, Linnaeus named it using a Greek term, and that would have been easy for her to look up in any botanical or mythological work.

Another cite, from an ginseng article by the American Botanical Council, backs this up, with detail on the Chinese name of the plant:

The plant that Foxfire talks about is Panax quinquefolius, American Ginseng. The most widely used Euro-American folk slang for the root, in the mountains, is 'Sang, a shortening for ginseng. From The Cherokee Herbal, JT Garrett, the Cherokee name for the herb is " O ta le ga le", or “Tali kuli”, translating as “It climbs the mountain”, which describes where ginseng grows in the wild, but perhaps a nod to it’s effect of giving strength to the body.

And, I found this page interesting, as it shows how many plants worldwide were called Panax due to their medicinal attributes, their botanical reclassification, and, scrolling down, the names in different languages.

Panacea, yearning,
Sangs out for the Holy Grail
Rootin’ for truth
In the Fountain of Youth

It seems to me that those “untrue beliefs” used to be called “popular misconceptions”, but it’s been a long time since I’ve heard that term. I think it may have been replaced by “urban legend”, even though that’s not what urban legend was supposed to mean.