On the NPR blog on the 11th, “From Ancient Sumeria To Chipotle Tacos, Cumin Has Spiced Up The World” by Adam Maskevich, with this striking claim:

In English, … cumin has a singular distinction – it is the only word that can be traced directly back to Sumerian, the first written language. So when we talk about cumin, we are harkening back to the Sumerian word gamun, first written in the cuneiform script more than 4,000 years ago. [hearken back is a variant of hark back, recognized by NOAD2]

This is extravagantly phrased. There’s a connection to Sumerian, but it’s far from direct.

(Hat tip to Sim Aberson.)

Here’s the story (with some details from the Wikipedia entry). English borrowed the word from Latin (cuminum), which borrowed it from Greek (κύμινον kyminon), which in turn borrowed it from some Semitic language, which one we don’t know (note Hebrew כמון kammon and Arabic كمون kammūn); the earliest attested form of the word in Greek is the Mycenaean ku-mi-no, written in Linear B syllabic script. Akkadian is the earliest attested Semitic language, and it was in a very close cultural relationship with the unrelated Sumerian language, including the use of the Sumerian (cuneiform) writing system. Sumerian, in turn, is one of the earliest known written languages (over 4,000 years ago) .

So there’s a connection between English cumin and Sumerian gamun, but I’d hardly call it direct.

(The Wikipedia entry is seriously confused about cognates vs. borrowings, by the way.)

Back to the NPR story, which begins:

I first encountered cumin in suburban New Jersey around 1988. Indian food was just starting to penetrate the suburbs, and a trip to the new Indian restaurant in the next town had, literally, the whiff of adventure about it.

As I took in the many new tastes and aromas from curries and kormas, one stood out: what I deemed the “the sweaty shirt spice,” or cumin.

Cumin is essential not just to India cooking but to cooks everywhere from Cuba, where it features in a garlicky sauce called mojo, to the Middle East, to China, where it flavors the grilled meats of the country’s Muslim minority.

Here in the U.S. you’ll find cumin in an impressively diverse selection of products from chili powder and black bean soup to croutons and kale slaw, as a recent Food and Drug Administration recall of cumin products revealed. Some of our most popular restaurant chains rely on it heavily, too: Cumin is in nine of the 23 items on Chipotle’s menu.

“Once it has been introduced into a new land and culture, cumin has a way of insinuating itself deeply into the local cuisine, which is why it has become one of the most commonly used spices in the world,” writes Gary Nabhan, author and social science researcher at the University of Arizona Southwest Center, in his recent book, Cumin, Camels, and Caravans.

Cumin seeds (as used in cooking):


And the cumin plant, in bloom:


From Wikipedia:

Cumin (/ˈkjuːmɨn/ or UK /ˈkʌmɨn/, US /ˈkuːmɨn/; sometimes spelled cummin; Cuminum cyminum), also known as zeera, is a flowering plant in the family Apiaceae [or Umbelliferae], native from the east Mediterranean to India. Its seeds (each one contained within a fruit, which is dried) are used in the cuisines of many different cultures, in both whole and ground form. In addition, it is also used as a medicinal plant, serving as a digestant, as well as being used to treat anemia and the common cold.

… Cumin has been in use since ancient times. Seeds excavated in India have been dated to the second millennium BC. They have also been reported from several New Kingdom levels of ancient Egyptian archaeological sites. In the ancient Egyptian civilisation cumin was used as spice and as preservative in mummification.

Originally cultivated in Iran and the Mediterranean region, cumin is mentioned in the Bible in both the Old Testament (Isaiah 28:27) and the New Testament (Matthew 23:23). The ancient Greeks kept cumin at the dining table in its own container (much as pepper is frequently kept today), and this practice continues in Morocco. Cumin was also used heavily in ancient Roman cuisine. In India, it has been used for millennia as a traditional ingredient of innumerable kormas, masalas, and soups, and forms the basis of many other spice blends.

The Spanish introduced cumin to the New World, where it flourished as a culinary spice. See Chipotle (above).

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