wymote, marshmallow

What’s a wymote? A marshmallow.

No, not the thing you roast on a stick or drop in your hot chocolate. The plant.

You didn’t know a marshmallow was a plant first? Yup, it was. Still is. Also written marsh-mallow or marsh mallow, because it’s the kind of mallow that grows in marshes.

But why mote it be that it be called wymote? Well, it’s like this. Wymote is a variant of wymalve. Why? “Unexplained,” says the Oxford English Dictionary, but anyway wymote is still in use and wymalve is not.

OK, but why wymalve? Because it came from popular Latin viscomalva, which was worn down from hibiscomalva, which was hibiscus plus malva. Viscomalva passed into Old French as vismauve, whence English wymalve and also modern French guimauve, which also translates ‘marshmallow’ the thing you eat (any Canadian should know that just from food-package French).

You know what hibiscus is and if you don’t I have no hope for you but look it up. What is malva? It’s the Latin word for ‘mallow’, the whole family of plants. The word mallow comes from it. Remember, although later Latin, especially as spoken by native speakers of later European languages, said consonantal v as /v/, classical Latin said it as /w/. So /malwa/ easily became mallow, while hibiscomalva ended up as wymalve and then wymote.

I did say, didn’t I, that there are many different mallows? There are. Two to three dozen. They include the musk-mallow, the French mallow (a.k.a. bull mallow), the Chinese mallow, the Brazilian mallow, the tree mallow, the low mallow, the small mallow, the dwarf mallow (also called buttonweed and cheeseplant), and the least mallow (also called cheeseweed – the indignity!). And, more remotely related, the marshmallow, which is part of a different genus – not Malva but Althæa.

You know those plants that grow in marshes that look like sticks with hot dogs or marshmallows on the ends? Yeah, those are bulrushes and have nothing to do with mallows. Sorry. Marshmallows, the plants, are pretty things with white flowers. They are edible. The flowers are edible. The stems are edible. The roots are edible. And if you cook the roots, you will find they contain starch, mucilage, pectin, flavonoids, and sucrose (among other things). Which means they’re great for using to make fluffy gooey confections with a bunch of fancy cooking and some more sugar and flavouring.

Which is how we came to call the confections marshmallows: because they’re made from them. Oops, sorry, they were made from them. Confectioners figured out how to make them more easily cheaply with sugar, water, starch, and gelatin (some versions also contain eggs). A key discovery in the history of marshmallows, made in the 1800s, is called the starch mogul system, not because someone who made them was a starch mogul (cf. movie moguls) but because the starch was formed into moguls sort of like how snow is formed into moguls by skiers. (See mogul for heaps more.) Another development – in 1954 – allowed marshmallow mixture to be extruded into long thick ropes and cut into segments. This led to the modern cylindrical pillows, so ready to be dissolved in chocolate or impaled and incinerated on an open flame, or some more options.

So a pretty white swamp flower has also become a pillowy edible, no longer using the original. And the malva – and althæa – has become both marshmallow and wymote. Nothing stays the same, but it’s all delicious in your mouth.

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