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I am very curious about the etymology of the German and Yiddish word "Mohn", meaning "poppy", and, at least in Yiddish, "poppy-seed." Wiktionary suggests a long, meandering, and ill-defined history, with the spectre of a "nicht-indoeuropäischen Sprache" lurking there. I am wondering if this "nicht-indoeuropäischen Sprache" could be Semitic language/s.

"Mon" ("מן") in Hebrew means not poppyseed but manna, the unearthly nourishment with which the ancient Jews were sustained in the desert, according to the Biblical account. If you look at some pictures of various types of poppy seeds, you will notice the similarities to manna according to classical descriptions. Similarly, if you have tasted poppy seeds, you know that they taste like everything and nothing, but a bit sweet (and maybe a little savory, too) -- just like manna in its various, seemingly incoherent characterizations.

I wonder, therefore, if this very ancient seed could have a very ancient name, possibly influenced by the Biblical accounts at their time of exercise.

Can any etymologists answer?


One more thing. Poppy seeds have, of course, a connection to opium -- the one food guaranteed to keep you full no matter what you are doing or, in fact, eating. If opium can also taste like any food, and can inspire an ennobled view of the world, so much the better.

(Of course, all this is only true only until you become tolerant of opium, Gd forbid--at which point you start needing more.)

I don't mention this for nothing. To those familiar with Biblical accounts, the interpretation that "manna" may have been, in its earthly sense, poppyseeds, starts to sound considerably logical. It should therefore come as no surprise that "use" of the poppy in Ancient Egypt is believed first to have occurred at more or less exactly the same time as the Exodus -- followed closely by the first appearance of poppies in the Holy Land.

I don't know enough to take issue with either of the alternate theories mentioned (i.e., that "Mohn" comes from a mḗk- root from a Mediterranean language, which may at any rate be a Semitic language; and that "Mohn" came from Proto-Indo-European through Greek). I will mention that it seems, according to my sources, that mek- indeed became a Greek word with a connection to poppies, but that this apparently dates in the written record only from the ninth-century B.C. I am wondering, however capriciously, whether there could not have been something earlier.

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    With all due respect I cannot really imagine poppy seeds as the all-feeding food that resembled coriander seed, was all white and tasted like wafers all with honey (Exodus). Eating pure poppy seeds would have been a bit awkward, I guess. (Considering they didn't have floss back then) – tofro Jun 10 '18 at 8:56
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A quote from DUDEN Das Herkunftswörterbuch Etymologie der deutschen Sprache, 3. Auflage, 2001. ISBN 3-411-04073-4:

On Page 536:

Mohn: Der Name der alten Kulturpflanze (mhd. mān, māhen, ahd. māho, mago) hängt zusammen mit griechisch mḗkōn »Mohn« und mit der slaw. Sippe von russ. mak »Mohn«. Der den Germanen, Slawen und Griechen gemeinsame Pflanzenname ist wahrscheinlich in sehr alter Zeit aus einer Mittelmeersprache entlehnt worden. Die Mohnpflanze stammt aus dem Mittelmeergebiet. - Im germ. Sprachbereich ist der Name außer im Dt. auch bewahrt in niederl. maankop »Mohnkopf« und im schwed. vallmo »Mohn« (eigentlich »Rauschmohn«)

mhd. = Mittelhochdeutsch = Middle High German (MHG)
ahd. = Althochdeutsch = Old High German (OHG)
slaw. = slawisch = Slavic
russ. = russisch = Russian
germ. = germanisch = Germanic
Dt. = Deutsch = German
niederl. = niederländisch = Dutch

I try to translate:

Mohnpoppy: The name of the ancient cultivated plant (HMG. mān, māhen, OHG. māho, mago) hangs together with the Greek mḗkōn "poppy" and with the Slavic Tribe of Russian mak "poppy". The common name of the Germans, Slavs and Greeks was probably borrowed from a Mediterranean language in ancient times. The poppy plant originates from the Mediterranean area. - In Germanic Linguistic area the name is not only preserved in German but also in Dutch maankop "poppy head" and in swedish vallmo "poppy" (actually "opium poppy")


Also the »Digitales Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache« (DWDS) (digital dictionary of German language) shows the Etymology of »Mohn«:

Mohn m. Der Name der seit alters bekannten Ölpflanze lautet ahd. mago (9. Jh.) und (ablautend mit grammatischem Wechsel) ahd. māho (10. Jh.; ebenso asächs. māho), woraus (mit auslautendem -n aus den flektierten Kasus) mhd. māge(n), māhen, mān (mnd. mān) und auch das doch wohl mit Länge anzusetzende ahd. mān (Hs. 13. Jh.). Daneben stehen die Zusammensetzungen nd. Mahnkopp, nl. maankop (d. i. ‘Mohnkopf’, nach der runden Fruchtkapsel) und norw. valmue, schwed. vallmo, aschwed. valmoghe, d. i. ‘Schlafmohn’, vgl. norw. (mundartlich) vale ‘tiefer Schlaf’, schwed. (mundartlich) valbjörk ‘Kreuzdorn’, eigentlich ‘Schlafdorn’, vgl. gleichbed. schwed. sömntorn. Außergerm. vergleichbar sind griech. mḗkōn (μήκων), kslaw. makъ, russ. mak (мак). Da der Mohn aus dem Mittelmeergebiet stammt, kann eine alte Entlehnung ie. *mā̌k- bzw. *mā̌ken- aus einer Mittelmeersprache angenommen werden. Nhd. hält sich Mahn bis ins 18. Jh. (in Mundarten bis heute); Verdunklung des Vokals setzt im 15. Jh. ein, und vom 18. Jh. an wird Mohn allgemein üblich.

My translation:

Mohnpoppy masculine. The name of the oil plant known since ancient times is OHG. mago (9th century) and (with vowel gradation and grammatical change) OHG. māho (10th century, also Old Saxon māho), from which (with final -n from the inflected case) MHG māge(n), māhen, mān (Middle Low German, mān), and also the OHG. mān (Hs. 13th century). Next to it are the compositions Low German Mahnkopp, Dutch maankop (this is 'poppy head', after the round fruit capsule) and Norwegian valmue, Swedish vallmo, Old Swedish valmoghe, this is 'Opium poppy', compare Norwegian (dialect) vale 'deep sleep', Swedish (dialect) valbjörk 'buckthorn', actually 'purging buckthorn', compare with same meaning Swedish sömntorn. Non-Germanic comparable are Greek mḗkōn (μήκων), Church Slavic makъ, Russian mak (мак). Since the poppy comes from the Mediterranean area, an old borrowing like *mā̌k- or *mā̌ken- may be adopted from a Mediterranean language. New High German Mahn holds until the 18th century (in dialects up to the present); Dimming of the vowel begins in the 15th century, and from the 18th century Mohn becomes common practice.


DWDS also shows an etymology of Manna:

Manna n. ‘Himmelsbrot’, die dem Volke Israel von Gott gegebene Speise in der Wüste, übertragen ‘wundersame körperliche oder geistige Stärkung’, ahd. (8. Jh.), mhd. manna, Übernahme von spätlat. manna, griech. (biblisch) mánna (μἀννα), aram.* mannā,* hebr. mān. Dieses aus ägypt. menna ‘Pflanzensaft’? Gedeutet teils als Honigtau, teils als (entsprechend benannte) Mannaflechte; doch beides ist fraglich. Dazu verdeutlichendes spätmhd. mannabrōt.

My translation:

Manna neuter. 'Bread of heaven', the food given to the people of Israel by God in the desert, transmits 'miraculous physical or spiritual strengthening', OHG. (8th cent.), MHG. manna, adoption of late latin manna, Greek (biblical) mánna (μἀννα), Aramaic mannā, Hebrew mān. This from Egypt. menna 'vegetable juice'? Partly interpreted as honeydew, partly as (correspondingly named) mannalichen; but both are questionable. For clarifying late MHG. mannabrōtmanna bread.


So, what I can say from this sources:

The etymological root of Mohn is a word like "mak" or "maken", which contains a K but no N in a "Mediterranean language".

But the etymological root of Manna is Aramaic "manna", Hebrew "man" and Egypt "menna" where you can't find a K but an N.

German Wikipedia has an article about old Mediterranean languages: Altmediterrane Sprachen It lists among many others Etruscan, Sicanian, Minoan, Hattic, Hurrian and Urartian. But of course also some Afroasiatic and Semitic languages belong to this group.

  • I believe your translation of the entry for "Manna" should read "the food given to the people of Israel by God". – George A Jun 6 '18 at 8:15
  • @HubertScholnast Thank you very much. But it seems no one is at all sure that the precursor of Mohn was a stem in -k, or even that it came from a Mediterranean language... – SAH Jun 6 '18 at 10:33
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    @SAH: in Greek (which is the proposed etymological root for Mahn/Mohn) it still today is Μήκων (Mekon). Poppy is from Latin papaver. – Takkat Jun 6 '18 at 11:41
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    @SAH And in Danube Swabian it’s „Mag“ - basically the “mag” with a softer ending. – Stephie Jun 6 '18 at 18:16
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    If the word is rooted in some "mediterranean" language, a relation to some form of old Semitic (of what kind ever) is quite probable. It is the same region, finally. – Christian Geiselmann Aug 17 '18 at 21:33
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The current thinking of students of Indo-European (IE) is that the Germanic words for “poppy” derive from proto-IE *meHk-n- (with an a-colouring laryngeal), the source also of Greek μηκων. IE *k gives Germanic /h/; thus we have Old High German maho > MHG mahen, mān > NHG Mohn. This IE family, with its historic *k, cannot be connected to the Hebrew mān “manna”. It so happens that the Ashkenazic and Yiddish pronunciation of the Hebrew word is [mon], and thus sounds exactly like New High German Mohn, but this is pure coincidence.

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