We were listening to the radio this evening and a woman was being interviewed about a doughnut recipe that involved arrowroot. The interviewer asked jovially “So is it the root of the arrow, then?” and they had a good laugh; I, of course, headed for the dictionary. The American Heritage Dictionary had a particularly good “word history” sidebar, which I will now pass on to you:
The arrowroot is just one of many plants that the European settlers and explorers discovered in the New World. The Arawak, a people who formerly lived on the Caribbean islands and continue to inhabit certain regions of Guiana, named this plant aru-aru, meaning “meal of meals,” so called because they thought very highly of the starchy, nutritious meal made from the arrowroot. The plant also had medicinal value because its tubers could be used to draw poison from wounds inflicted by poison arrows. The medicinal application of the roots provided the impetus for English speakers to remake aru-aru into arrowroot, first recorded in English in 1696. Folk etymology—the process by which an unfamiliar element in a word is changed to resemble a more familiar word, often one that is semantically associated with the word being refashioned—has triumphed once again, giving us arrowroot instead of the direct borrowing of aru-aru.
So it’s like “sparrowgrass” for asparagus, except that it’s become the normal term. Who’d have guessed?
Update. Ian Preston, in the first comment, links to the relevant section in William C. Sturtevant’s “History and Ethnography of Some West Indian Starches” (in The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals, ed. Peter Ucko and G. Dimbleby, Chicago: Aldine, 1969), which pretty convincingly demolishes the aru-aru theory: “According to Barham, a Jamaica physician writing before 1711, the plant Sloane labelled Canna Indica was called ‘arrow root’ because it was first known as an Indian antidote for poisoned arrow wounds, for which the juice was taken internally and the bruised root was used as a poultice on the wound.” Sturtevant’s conclusion:
The historical development in the West Indies seems clear: an Indian antidote for poisoned arrow wounds, adopted by non-Indians as an antidote for other poisons then extended to other medicinal uses, then used as a food for the sick at about the same time as it became a source of starch for other purposes with starch gaining techniques very likely transferred from those used with manioc.