Sweetgum

As I sit at my computer, I can see, out the front window, over the patio wall, the trees in the back of the Palo Alto downtown library, currently featuring an American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) in its bright red fall coloring. A very cheering sight. A stock photo from the net:

(#1)

From Wikipedia:

Liquidambar, commonly called sweetgum (sweet gum in the UK), gum, redgum, satin-walnut, or American storax, is a genus of five species of flowering plants in the family Altingiaceae, though formerly often treated in the Hamamelidaceae. They are all large, deciduous trees, 25–40 metres (82–131 ft) tall, with palmately 3- to 7-lobed leaves arranged spirally on the stems and length of 12.5 to 20 centimetres (4.9 to 7.9 in), having a pleasant aroma when crushed. Mature bark is grayish and vertically grooved. The flowers are small, produced in a dense globular inflorescence 1–2 centimetres (0.39–0.79 in) diameter, pendulous on a 3–7 centimetres (1.2–2.8 in) stem. The fruit is a woody multiple capsule 2–4 centimetres (0.79–1.57 in) in diameter (popularly called a “gumball”), containing numerous seeds and covered in numerous prickly, woody armatures, possibly to attach to fur of animals. The woody biomass is classified as hardwood. In more northerly climates, sweetgum is among the last of trees to leaf out in the spring, and also among the last of trees to drop its leaves in the fall, turning multiple colors.

More from NOAD2:

sweet gum  the North American liquidambar, which yields a balsam and [a] decorative heartwood that is marketed as satin walnut.

balsam  an aromatic resinous substance, such as balm, exuded by various trees and shrubs and used as a base for certain fragrances and medical and cosmetic preparations.

Some American sweetgum leaves (in green) and gumballs (#2)

On the genus name liquidambar, from NOAD2:

ORIGIN late 16th cent.: modern Latin, apparently formed irregularly from Latin liquidus ‘liquid’ + medieval Latin ambar ‘amber.’

The crucial fact here is that liquidambar was used for ‘liquid balsam obtained chiefly from the Asian liquidambar tree, used medicinally and in perfume’ (NOAD2); that is, it was both liquid and amber-scented — facts that are unlikely to be appreciated by modern speakers.

On the scent of amber, from Wikipedia:

Although when burned, [fossilized] amber does give off a characteristic “pinewood” fragrance, modern products, such as perfume, do not normally use actual amber. This is due to the fact that fossilized amber produces very little scent. In perfumery, scents referred to as “amber” are often created and patented to emulate the opulent golden warmth of the fossil.
… The scent of amber was originally derived from emulating the scent of ambergris and/or labdanum but due to the endangered status of the sperm whale the scent of amber is now largely derived from labdanum. The term “amber” is loosely used to describe a scent that is warm, musky, rich and honey-like, and also somewhat oriental and earthy. It can be synthetically created or derived from natural resins.

A side note on labdanum, from Wikipedia:

Labdanum, also called ladanum or ladan, is a sticky brown resin obtained from the shrubs Cistus ladanifer (western Mediterranean) and Cistus creticus (eastern Mediterranean), species of rockrose. It has a long history of use in herbal medicine and as a perfume ingredient.

Back to modern times. If you know the name liquidambar for the tree but (of course) know nothing of its history, you might well be puzzled by it, but still might struggle to make some sense of it. It sounds like liquid amber, so you might go for that, thereby producing a demi-eggorn — with recognizable parts but no discernible compositional semantics. (It’s even possible that you’ll concoct some story that makes some sense of liquid amber. That’s certainly happened in the case of some other demi-eggcorns, which have been promoted, for some people, to full eggcorn status.) I had an instance of this demi-eggcorn in my files (from a detective mystery set in Berkeley CA, no doubt a Marcia Muller) but now can’t find it in my files.

Ah, Google to the rescue. From Muller’s Sharon McCone mystery Wolf in the Shadows (1993):

It was one of the smaller renovated warehouses – old brickwork and high arched windows, augmented by new skylights and iron trim. Liquid amber saplings grew in brick-faced planters on the sidewalk on the sidewalk, and a plate-glass window afforded a view of the building’s rather stark lobby.

What’s cute here is that the demi-eggcorn reproduces the actual etymology of the word.

3 Responses to “Sweetgum”

  1. Karen Schaffer Says:

    Very cool. I’ve wondered about the name liquidambar. Now what about ambergris?

  2. Tané Tachyon Says:

    One of my neighbors was praising her liquidambar tree, and not having seen the name in print before this, yes, I had assumed it was “liquid amber”.

  3. Joseph F Foster Says:

    We called em sweet gum in Arkansas but also, less commonly, “liquid amber”. But our sweet gums in the Fall turned more of a deep yellow with a grennish tinge. I don’t remember seeing any in Champaign-Urbana, but here in SW Ohio they have more of a reddish gold — a real amberish color. I don’t know whether it’s the difference in soils or a difference in subspecies.

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