While you might not find many Irish people eating it, many Americans will be plating up corned beef and cabbage to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day today. The particular reasons for this are complicated and fascinating, as Shaylyn Esposito explained in 2013 on Smithsonian.com. Traditions vary with time, space, and circumstance, of course–and so do words, as is true for the corned in corned beef. So, why is it corned beef?
Corned means “salted,” as corned beef is preserved or cured with salt. Salt is made up of particles or grains, which the English language used to refer to more generally as corn. Indeed, corn is attested as corn in Old English. One might mention a corn of sand or rice–or pepper or barley, hence peppercorn or barleycorn. These instances have corned these old senses of corn, if you will. For today, the sense of corn is more restricted. It likely evokes maize for North Americans, shortened from the phrase Indian corn. Wheat, oat, or rye, though, may come to mind across the Atlantic.
It’s no coincidence that corn means “grain.” Both words come from the same root, making them doublets, etymologically speaking. Both originally meaning “grain” or “seed,” corn was harvested from the Germanic *kurnóm, while grain from the Latin grānum. The Germanic root also gives English kernel, while the Latin has produced a crop, including garner, gram, granite, granule, filigree, and pomegranate, to name a few.
If we dig deeper into the Germanic and Latin roots, we find their common ancestor, the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *gre-no- or *grhnóm, or “grain.” According to Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, the root *gerh-, meaning “to ripen” underlies *gre-no- or *grhnóm, “grain.”
Etymologists have suggested a connection to the Sanskrit jṛ, a verb meaning “to wear down” or “waste away.” With this in mind, the Oxford English Dictionary explains: “A corn or grain is therefore, etymologically, a ‘worn-down’ particle.” So something, “worn down” or “wasted away” might be considered “old.” So, the PIE *gerə-, “to grow old,” may then be connected to corn, thus connecting the word to some other “age-old” derivatives of the PIE *gerə-. (Perhaps the PIE for “to grow old” and “ripen” are themselves connected.)
Do you work in the field of gerontology? Ancient Greek yields γέρων (géron), “an old man.” The Old Persian name Zarathustra, behind Zoroastrianism, is said to have the literal meaning of “owner of old camels.” *Zarant (“old”) has been reconstructed down the Iranian branch of Indo-European languages. (Ushthra means “camel,” thus yoga’s Ushthrasana, or “camel pose.”)
Now, those old camels probably just don’t have corns of sand on their weathered hooves, but that kind of corn, natively referred to as an agnail (later, hangnail), actually comes from the same root that gives us the word horn. Corned beef and cabbage was never so interesting.