Victor Mair posts at the Log about a very interesting word I hadn’t given much thought to. A bezoar is “A hard indigestible mass of material, such as hair, plant fibers, or seeds, found in the stomach or intestine of animals, especially ruminants and sometimes humans”; when I first ran across the word decades ago, I had the same experience as Mair: “Inasmuch as I had never heard anyone speak the word, I just made up my own pronunciation, and it consisted of three syllables: beh-zoe-are.” Being me, I probably checked the etymology, saw it was from a French word spelled variously bezahar, bezoar, bezoard, etc., and thought “yup, three syllables, case closed.” But it turns out in English it’s generally pronounced with two: Brit. /ˈbiːzɔː/, U.S. /ˈbiˌzɔr/ (though the OED also gives Brit. /ˈbɛzəʊɑː/, so the trisyllabic pronunciation does exist). Mair links to videos of people who deal with the things professionally saying the word, and it’s definitely /ˈbiˌzɔr/. So that’s one thing I’ve learned today. The OED (an old entry, not updated since 1887) explains:

In 17th cent. English, as in French and Spanish, bezahar, bezaar was reduced to two syllables, bezar, beazar, beazer /ˈbeːzər/, of which the modern pronunciation would be regularly /ˈbiːzə(r)/. The spelling bezoar (for bezaär) appears to be of modern Latin origin; it has influenced the pronunciation given in dictionaries since the end of last century.

The other interesting feature is the etymology. AHD says:

[Middle English bezear, stone used as antidote to poison, probably from Old French bezahar, gastric or intestinal mass used as antidote to poison, from Arabic bāzahr, from Persian pādzahr : pād-, protector (from Avestan pātar-; see pā- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots) + zahr, poison (from Middle Persian; see gwhen- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots).]

In the comments at the Log, martin schwartz says (I’ve taken the liberty of replacing his Ø with an actual theta):

Let’s delve more fully into the etymology of bezoar: ,,, from Arabic … from Middle Persian pādzahr < *pātijanθra- [...] nominalization with lengthening ("vrddhi" ) of initial vowel from adjective *pati-janθra- 'counter[i]ng poison', from preverb *pati- 'counter to, anti-' (nothing to do with √pā 'protect' etc.) and *janθra- 'poison' < √jan 'to kill' ….. The word is attested in Sogdian as */pātžār/; it is attested in a Buddhist text edited by Benveniste in his collection of Sogdian texts

And of course Mair discusses “its odd-sounding Chinese name: niúhuáng 牛黃 (‘cow yellow’).”


  1. I think the pigment called Indian yellow is the pigment indicated by Sanskrit gorocanā:

    There is mention of gallstones in that article. Perhaps bezoars and gallstones were confused in some account of the origin of this pigment. In any case, it is odd that the character 黃 huáng in 牛黃 niúhuáng apparently originally depicted a person with something on or in his abdomen or chest, perhaps a piece of (white) jade. Just a coincidence?

  2. JK Rowling mentions Bezoar in the Harry Potter series methinks.

    It might have made it to the big screen, but not sure about the pronunciation there, as i haven’t watched the films.

  3. In Scott P.’s comment (the second one) at the Log post, there’s a link to how Alan Rickman pronounced it in the movie.

  4. Yahyaoğlu says

    The AHD etymology needs to be revised, definitely. The analysis of pād as “protecting” in the AHD must go back at least to Steingass. Steingass has this:

    ﭙاد زهر pād-zahr (protecting from poison), The bezoar-stone.

    I haven’t checked if the Persian lexicographical traditional has this folk etymology explicitly, and Steingass is just relaying it to us.

    The AHD etymology hasn’t been revised in any substantive way since 1969, as far as I can tell. I’m not surprised it hasn’t been revised since—back in the days when publishers actually published dictionaries, when would the management ever have allowed time in the production schedules for lexicographical staff to do a general review of old etymologies? With the way general dictionary publishing is going, the AHD will probably never be revised again.

  5. So how would you emend the etymology?

  6. Yahyaoğlu says

    I think Martin Schwarz is correct.

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