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Tuesday 15 November 2005

Fish sauce: the names of garum

This is a version of my posting to the Apicius group, which has been discussing the names for fish sauce in Aramaic.

In Latin there are four words, garum (a word borrowed from Greek), liquamen (a Latin neologism ‘the liquid, the exudate, what flows off’), muria (unexplained), allec (either linked with the word for ‘shad’, or borrowed from Greek). It’s a sign of the local importance of the product that it has such a rich vocabulary. Sally Grainger is going to publish her view that garum and liquamen mean rather different things. I guess that muria was a garum substitute, perhaps produced by cooking rather than fermentation. By the way, Roman fish sauce as a whole (garum/liquamen/muria complex) was not an expensive product -- more a necessity of life. It was the main way of adding salt to food and one of the ways of not wasting fish. Just as in Thailand or Vietnam now, there could be a whole range of prices from the stuff everyone uses to the fancy brands (garum sociorum etc.) and single-ingredient products. As for the solid stuff, allec, no source suggests that this was expensive so far as I know. The Geoponica seems to tell us that it was the solid by-product of the fermentation of garum/liquamen, and, again southeast Asia offers an analogue.

In Greek there are only two words, garos and alix (and the latter is rare). The explanation could be this. Greeks hadn’t originally seen the attraction of the solid by-product (can one blame them?), and they hadn’t got to the level of garum gastronomy reached by Rome. They just reached out for fish sauce, good or bad, more smelly or less smelly, and called it garos.

In Aramaic there is the word muries, close to Latin muria. Being purely speculative, this Aramaic word could be as specialised as Latin muria, or as general in its meaning as Greek garos. I suppose the word could have been used earlier in the Levant, and could have arrived in Italy by way of Carthage, to be adopted in Latin as a name for the products at the cheap end of the market. Or it could have been borrowed from Latin into Aramaic; in that case it could have retained its meaning of the cheap-end salty fishy sauce, or it could have gained a wider meaning – you can see how that would happen in the provinces – eventually used also for a more expensive imported product if the local elite got interested in it. There is also the word tsir, the name of a product which could be cheap, was fed to workers, might be made from locusts instead of fish. It has been said in the past that tsir corresponds to garum more or less – I said so, following an earlier authority, in Food in the Ancient World from A to Z – but Susan Weingarten is reconsidering the meaning of the Aramaic words and does not believe that tsir is garum.

Relevant to these ancient fermented sauces are the medieval Levantine ones, which Charles Perry has been studying. References follow.

Contributed by Andrew Dalby. Posted at 18:29
Edited on: Tuesday 15 November 2005 18:32
Categories: Extra (additions to published work)