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Friday, June 7, 2013

Of Basil and Basilisks

Summer is here and we are all relishing the fresh herbs in our gardens, among them basil. Why is basil called that? And what's the correct way to pronounce it?

In ancient Greek, the word basile├║s  meant ‘king’. Legend has it that this fragrant member of the mint family had magical curative properties and was used in special ointments that were for the exclusive use of royalty. Thus, it was called basilik├│n,  literally the royal herb. 
The Romans ascribed even more magical properties to the herb, claiming that it could be used as an antidote for the venom of the similarly named basilisk.    
(The basilisk, as you can see from this picture, had a crown on its head, hence its kingly name).  

This particular drug claim was conveniently difficult to disprove, since the basilisk didn't actually exist. It was a mythical creature (I bet you never guessed that from the picture), alleged to be hatched by a serpent from a cock's egg (just take a moment to think about that!).  It was reputed to be able to drive away all other serpents, and its breath, and even its glare, could kill. It is possible that the real-world origin of this myth was the Egyptian cobra.

The Romans were so convinced of the relationship between the herb and the serpent that they conflated their names into one: basiliscus.  In French, this is still the case, with basilic serving for both. 

Before we leave basilisks (which have recently been more in the limelight thanks to playing a role in the Harry Potter books) and move on to basil, as the English language did, you should know that there is an actual lizard called a basilisk. Found in North and South America, it was named after the legendary basilisk because it too has a crown-like crest. Here is some fascinating and cute basilisk trivia, courtesy of the Encyclopedia Britannica: "Basilisks commonly live along streams and will run quickly across the water on their hind legs when frightened. They are commonly called “Jesus Christ” lizards because of this trait."


By the late 1400s, the English had learned about basil, as about so many things culinary, from their French masters. They still associated it with nasty reptiles, though they seemed to be unsure whether it combatted them:

1562   W. Turner 2nd Pt. Herball f. 66,   Basil..is good for the stryking of a sea dragon.

or caused them:

1589   T. Cogan Hauen of Health (new ed.) xxxvi. 50   A certaine Italian, by often smelling to Basill, hadde a Scorpion bredde in his braine.

Clearly they were already aware of the Italian fondness for basil, which accounts for a resurgence in the herb's popularity in the 20th century. It had rather fallen out of favour as a culinary herb in England, and Keats's poem ‘Isabella, or the pot of basil’ (1820), in which a young woman hides the head of her lover (murdered by her brothers) in a planter and then grows some basil in it, probably did nothing to make it more appetizing. If that doesn't put you off  your pesto, I don't know what will.
Isabella and the pot of basil, by William Holman Hunt

In case you're thinking this might be the origin of the personal name "Basil", it's not (the guy in the planter was called Lorenzo). Like the plant (and also both the word "basilica", originally a royal palace, and the name of the Swiss city Basel), Basil is derived from the Greek Basileios ‘royal’ (a derivative of basileus ‘king’). It became a popular name thanks to the fourth-century bishop St Basil the Great, a theologian considered to be one of the Fathers of the Eastern Church. In North America, it hasn't been in the top 1000 baby names in the past fifty years. In Britain, it was in the top 100 in the Victorian era and even up to 1994, but has since disappeared from view. Personally I can't imagine, as my mother would say, "looking at a baby and calling it Basil".

The thorny question is: how should "basil" be pronounced? The British say "BAZZ'll", while Americans more commonly say "BAYZ'll". A recent facebook poll I conducted confirmed that, as so often, Canadians are divided, with about 75% saying BAZZ'll and 25% saying BAYZ'll. Neither is wrong. If you want to join your voice to the poll, you can find it hereI have not been able to determine when or why the BAYZ'll pronunciation arose.

For the American/British difference in the pronunciation of the word "herb", see my post "Herb or Erb?" .

Apparently no one pronounces the personal name anything but BAZZLE, which of course brings us to  this classic excerpt from Fawlty Towers, in which a rat called Basil wreaks havoc in a hotel whose owner is also called Basil. No discussion of basil could be complete without it. I wouldn't be surprised if John Cleese -- or BAZZill, as Sybil Fawlty calls him -- single-handedly accounts for the precipitous decline in the popularity of Basil as a baby name.

Finally, here's an easy, tasty, and oh so healthy recipe using basil:

Roasted Vegetable Tart

8 oz. mushrooms
1 zucchini
1 large red pepper (or orange or yellow)
1 red or sweet onion
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp Italian seasoning (or 1tsp EACH dried basil, thyme, and oregano)
1/4 tsp each salt and pepper
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 cup shredded cheese (something flavourful, like cheddar, smoked gouda)

1 3/4 cup whole wheat flour

2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp dried basil or Italian seasoning
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup milk
3 tbsp olive oil

Place a large (17 x11") baking sheet upside down on middle rack of oven and preheat oven to 425 F. Brush another large baking sheet with olive oil.
If you have a food processor with an adjustable slicing blade, set it to fairly thick and slice mushrooms, zucchini (quarter it lengthwise first), peppers and onion. Chop garlic finely. Spread all vegetables over baking sheet, sprinkle with seasonings and vinegar, and toss to combine well. Spread vegetables evenly on baking sheet, place it on top of the upside-down baking sheet in the oven and roast the veggies for about 30 minutes, tossing a couple of times, until tender and starting to brown.
Meanwhile, whirl dry ingredients for the crust in food processor using blade attachment (it doesn't matter if there are still bits of vegetable in the bowl). Add milk and oil and process until combined. Turn out onto a floured board, knead a few times until smooth, then roll or pat out to a rough circle about 12'' in diameter. Place on another baking sheet. Fold about 1/2 inch of the edge toward the centre and pinch into a raised border.
Spread roasted vegetables evenly over crust to rim. Sprinkle with cheese.
Place in oven on top of the upside down baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes.
Makes 4 servings, about 400 calories per serving.

PS I do not know what purpose the upside-down baking sheet serves but that's what the original recipe specified.


  1. Hello,

    Wonderful, tasty (!) story ... I would need assistance with cooking, but never mind that.

    My question would be: the word "basilica" doesn't also mean "church" ? I could see that "palace" might become "church", but how did that happen, I don't know.

    The Romanian word "biserica" for "church" it is said to have been derived from "basilica", and that seems plausible to me.

    Thank you.

  2. Yes, basilica does designate a type of church. It's a longish story and since this post was already very long I didn't want to add any more complications.

  3. You mention a cocks egg in relation to a basilisk. A cocks egg is a small chickens egg that has no yolk. The word cockney is derived from cocks egg and was used as an insult by healthy country folk of weedy city folk and in particular londoners. It later became a term for people from a certain part of London

  4. Early Christians wanted to disassociate from paganism, so instead of using the Roman temple form, they chose the stately courthouse – the basilica – as the model for their churches.

  5. the upside down baking sheet is perhaps to make an air space to prevent the crust from burning


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.