Sorrel is a weedy herb of the dock genus Rumex, which is also the classical Latin word for the plant. Virgil included it as “fecund sorrel” in the short list of salad greens and vegetables in his minor poem Moretum.* He does not, however, mention its two main characteristics. It is overloaded with oxalic acid, a chemical that promotes gout and kidney stones. And this acid makes it very sour. Indeed, its name means sour, deriving from Old French surelle.† This is still a French slang name for sorrel. But the modern name, oseille, which is derived from surelle, has its own slang meaning, money, as in our “folding green stuff” or “cabbage.”‡ It is not to be confused with the Jamaican drink called sorrel, which is made from the red petals of the shrub Hibiscus sabdariffa, sold as rosa de Jamaica in Mexico.
*The list includes cabbage, beets, sorrel, mallow, elecampane (Inula helenium, a relative of the aster once cultivated for the medicinal properties of its root), chickpeas, leeks, lettuce, radish, and pumpkin.
†Surelle comes from sur, which survives as an adjective denoting sour. Sur comes from the German sauer (as, obviously, does “sour”), sour or acid (see sauerkraut).That sorrel was a popular food in rural England is reflected in the large number of vernacular or folk names for it: sour sabs, sour dabs, sour suds, cuckoo’s meate (because it was thought to clear the bird’s voice).
‡Other argotique terms for money: fric, pognon, grisbi.
© 2007 Raymond Sokolov. All rights reserved.