A story by Lydia Polgreen in today’s NY Times discusses a plant used in Mali as a form of fencing that turns out to be “a potentially ideal source of biofuel, a plant that can grow in marginal soil or beside food crops, that does not require a lot of fertilizer and yields many times as much biofuel per acre planted as corn and many other potential biofuels.” It will be great if it turns out to save the world, but as you will understand, my main concern is with its peculiar name, of whose pronunciation and origin the story gives no clue, except to say that it “originated in Central America and is believed to have been spread around the world by Portuguese explorers.” Some sort of Indian language, then? It wasn’t in the OED (tsk), but I found it in Webster’s Third New International: it’s pronounced JAT-ruh-fuh. And the etymology? That’s so surprising (and yet obvious, once you know) I’m placing it below the cut, so you can speculate unhindered before checking.
Meanwhile, I’ll entertain you with an odd entry I found in the OED while looking fruitlessly for this word:
jau dewin
[Origin obscure.]
A term of reproach.
1340-70 Alex. & Dind. 659 Þe iaudewin iubiter ioiful ȝe holde, For he was wraþful i-wrouht & wried in angur. c1362 Durham Acc. Rolls (Surtees) 565 Cuidam Istrioni Jestour Jawdewyne in festo Natalis D’ni, 3s. 4d. 1401 Pol. Poems (Rolls) II. 86 Thou jawdewine, thow jangeler, how stande this togider.
“Thou jawdewin” has a ring to it, doesn’t it? I may have to adopt it. (But why do they show it as two words when all the citations have it as one?)
OK, give up? Here’s the etymology:

Greek iatros ‘physician’ + trophē ‘nourishment.’ It’s originally a New Latin genus name, so Webster’s wants you to capitalize it: Jatropha. But I think we’re past that, now that it’s a world-saving wonder weed.


  1. Interesting article. The only -Jatropha- species I am familiar with is -Jatropha podagrica- a widely grown ornamental succulent.
    The “iatro” connection should have been apparent to me, but it wasn’t. Thanks.
    J. Del Col

  2. SnowLeopard says

    Odd name. The only Jatropha species listed in van Wyk’s “Medicinal Plants of the World” is Jatropha curcas. It’s a member of the Euphorbiaceae family (uniformly toxic) and its seeds reportedly found use in traditional Central & South American medicine, and later in traditional European medicine. The only clue as to its application is the evocative “purgative, toxic!” Physician’s nourishment, indeed.

  3. jau dewin [Origin obscure] — surely it is simply from Welsh iau “Jupiter” and dewin “magician, wizard” (noun) or “divine” (adj.), i.e. “Jupiter the Divine”. The reference to “Þe iaudewin iubiter” would support this etymology.

  4. komfo,amonan says

    Um, is it just me or is “Jatropha” just a godawful coinage? What’s the rationale/precedent for combining the two “tr”‘s into one? And didn’t initial iota start becoming “i” rather than “j” at some point (e.g., Ιωνία -> Ionia)?
    Besides ἰατρός, there’s a perfectly good word ἰατήρ,-ῆρος, which could get you *iaterotrophe — assuming *iatrotrophe is too cacophonous.

  5. It’s called haplology (or “haplogy,” as we ling-department wits used to say), and an excellent classical precedent is Latin nutrix = *nutritrix. As for the j-, they were presumably going on the analogy of words like January; unfortunately for them, that only applies to the semivowel, whereas the i- in iatros is a separate syllable. On the other hand, I’m not sure “iatropha” would be much better. Should have borrowed a local word.

  6. Andrew: Now that you mention it, that would seem to be blindingly evident. No Welshmen on the original OED staff, I guess. They probably know by now, but you might send it in to them just in case.

  7. komfo,amonan says

    Maybe they were inspired by the related word Ιάσων -> Jason (I think it’s related — aorist participle of ιάομαι?).

  8. The Middle English Dictionary gives:

    jaudewin (n.)
    [?Cp. OF (from Gmc.) geude, gelde, jaude, jeudon `foot soldier, band of foot soldiers, group or brotherhood’, & OIt. (from OF) geldra `ragamuffin’.]

    But I think my etymology is much more plausible (and perhaps the OED editors were thinking of the Welsh when they gave the headword form as two words instead of one). The connection between Jupiter, “the bringer of jollity”, and jesters and janglers is also quite easy to see.

  9. In Myanmar we are growing lots of these Jatrophas to defeat the foreign colonial oil powers.
    Than Shwe

  10. Why use the Latin when we have “physic nut!”

  11. And didn’t initial iota start becoming “i” rather than “j” at some point (e.g., Ιωνία -> Ionia)?

  12. Read my earlier comment: the i in Ionia is a separate vowel, not a semivowel.

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