Alcohol awareness campaigners were horrified to learn earlier this month that a British company plans to import and sell absinthe, the original version made with wormwood. There can hardly be an alcoholic drink with a worse reputation, even after nearly a century of prohibition in many countries.
Two things made absinthe such a terror. It was about twice the strength of any other spirit (more than two-thirds alcohol). And the wormwood in it not only provided part of its green colour and a characteristic bitter taste, but also thujone, an hallucinogen that is a relative of the active ingredients in cannabis. No wonder it drove people mad and it was banned in many countries early this century.
But the story of wormwood goes back much further than the absinthe manufactory set up by Henri-Louis Pernod in 1797. As a name for a native European species it originates in an old Germanic language, and it came into Old English as weremod or wermod. Its derivation is far from certain, but it may have been formed as a combination of wer, “man” (as in werewolf) and mut, “courage” (from which we get our mood). So it could be that its mood-altering properties were known from an early time.
The name changed in medieval times, being thought by folk etymology to be a combination of worm and wood (the plant is rather a woody shrub), because it had been known since the time of the ancient Greeks to be an effective worming agent. Its other benefits were lauded by John Pechey in 1694: “It strengthens the Stomach and Liver, excites Appetite, opens Obstructions, and cures Diseases that are occasion’d by them; as, the Jaundice, Dropsie, and the like”. That may sound like a snake-oil advertisement, but the plant was genuinely useful and was a regular part of the European herb garden.
Pechey said it also keeps away clothes moths. It was known to have the same effect on fleas, so much so as to be celebrated in verse:
Where chamber is sweeped, and wormwood is strowne,
No flea for his life dare abide to be knowne.
We know of the plant also from the Bible and Shakespeare, often as gall and wormwood, implying something acutely mortifying or vexing. The word has long been employed figuratively for something bitter or unpleasant to experience, reflecting its best known characteristic, its taste. It was commonly used to flavour both ale and wine, a practice that went back at least to Roman times, and in some rural areas it was used to flavour and preserve ale for many years after hops had been introduced to more prosperous places.
Today we actually have two names for drinks derived from the same word in the English language, because the German name, which by then had become Wermut, was taken into French and used as the name for another drink that was at one time flavoured with wormwood, vermouth. (The name absinthe is from the French word for the plant, derived from its former Latin name, absinthium.)
It seems the planned reintroduction of absinthe is only possible because Britain never got around to formally banning it — by the time we were thinking of doing so, it had already gone off the market. This time round, perhaps the authorities will act more quickly.