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Let's Look At The Language

August 13, 2011

Some of it's all Greek to me, but mostly it's just herbaceously aromatic

For the past five years, I've been a container gardener (having given up the backyard to my dogs). Each spring, my driveway becomes a botanical refuge, my own leafy, blossoming paradise.

The amount of work that goes into this annual process is ridiculous by anyone's standards, yet I wistfully long for it in winter, cheerfully dive into it in spring, and happily maintain it until the first whispers of frost.

I wouldn't say that I'm a fickle gardener, but for all my gardening life, wherever I have lived, whatever sort of garden I have created, I have always been inclined to show partiality for a different plant or section of the garden each year.

Container gardening plays right into my wheelhouse when it comes to that sort of seasonal favoritism, because the varieties of what I can grow and how I can arrange things are seemingly infinite.

This year's "darling of the driveway" is my little herbary, a collection of aromatic beauties displayed on an old coffee table and a grouping of tree-trunk sections (on loan from my wood-burning good neighbor, Greg).

Each pot has its own spiffy metal or terra cotta marker, announcing exactly what each herb is -- not that I wouldn't know without the markers, but favoritism is nothing if not indulgent.

Among the herbal greenery is a large pot of spearmint (a mint so named for its spear-shaped leaf tips), great bunches of which I consume regularly in iced tea.

A somewhat smaller pot is labeled "mojito mint"--actually it too is spearmint, but this is the batch reserved for making mojitos (frosty Cuban cocktails of rum, lime, mint and sugar) for summertime guests.

Surveying the multitude of herb markers, it occurs to me that if all my herbs were labeled by botanical family, the greater number would be "mint."

The mint family is pretty big, and it may surprise you how many herbs in your garden or spice rack actually belong to it. The "mints" in my garden include several types of basil (from the Greek for "royal"), oregano (from the Greek for "mountain brightness"), sage (from the Latin for "healing plant"), thyme (from the Greek for "to burn sacrifice"), rosemary (from the Latin for "dew of the sea," and a symbol of remembrance), and lavender (possibly from the Latin for "vivid" or "bluish"). Not with my herbs, but elsewhere in the garden, are other mint family members: coleus, salvia, Swedish ivy, and probably a few more.

Running a distant second in my herb garden is the parsley family, with curly and flat varieties of parsley (an alteration of the Latin petroselinum, which was once -- and thankfully no longer -- the English word for parsley), cilantro (which in American English used to mean the seed of the coriander plant; oddly, that usage is now reversed), and dill (which my Swedish father knew as a popular Swedish herb, and which in Sweden, by the way, is also called dill).

The "loners" (neither mint nor parsley) among my herbs are stevia (of the daisy family and named for 16th-century Spanish physician and botanist Pedro Jaime Esteve), lemongrass (of the grass family and named for its lemony taste and aroma), and chives (the smallest member of the onion family and named from an Old French variant of the Latin for onion).

Thanks to this year's "herbs on the gardening pedestal," the foods and beverages in my household this summer are especially delectable.

Although last year's prized plantings were some of the most beautiful members of the mint family, they had no impact whatsoever on the Lindberg family cuisine. That's because they were coleus -- remarkably stunning, but food only for the soul, not for the palate.

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? Email languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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