I’m sure many of you, all throughout yesterday’s note on borax, were thinking, “What about borage?!” Ah, yes, what indeed? How could I fail to mention borage when talking of borax? The words are so similar! They’re the same as far as bora, and where they differ they still have a similarity: the x represents a stop and a fricative, and the ge represents the affricate “j” sound, which is really also a stop and a fricative. The a is a full-value [æ] in borax and is reduced to a schwa in borage, but really, they’re so much alike.
The things they refer to, on the other hand, are not much alike at all. Borax is a mineral found in dried beds of seasonal lakes. Borage is a three-foot-tall plant with hairy stems and leaves and star-shaped flowers. Both of these things have many uses, but the uses of borage are almost all for ingestion. For medicine, yes – in true herbal medicine fashion, it is used for quite a variety of things, look them all up if you’re curious – but also for food and beverage. The green parts taste like cucumber, work well in salads, and used to be used in Pimm’s. The flower has a honeyish taste and is used in soups, main dishes, salads, and desserts. Since borage flowers are often blue, they can be quite useful for prettifying food. (Pink and white ones are also available.)
The word borage also has somewhat different overtones in its taste. While borax has the ax and racks and Barack kind of sound, borage brings to mind forage and barge and maybe beverage and burj (as in Burj al-Arab and Burj Khalifa in Dubai) – and also borracho, which is Spanish for ‘drunk’. Both have the taste of bore, but borage sounds like a hip term for an amount of boringness: “The exhibition was boring. There was indeed much borage to be had there.”
And where does this word come from? The modern (botanical) Latin is borago, but the medieval Latin was borrago. There are two lines of thought about where Latin got the term. One is that it came from Arabic abu araq, ‘father of sweat’, due to one of its medicinal purposes. The other is that it it comes from Latin burra (or borra), ‘rough hair, short wool’, due to the hairiness of the green parts of the plant.