Corn

I received a query from a reader the other day about the use of the word corn. It's apparently a common source of confusion, so I thought I'd post the answer for all to see.

In The Pericles Commission, Nico reports seeing corn sold in the agora. This might look wrong to North Americans, who strongly associate the word corn with the squishy, sweet, yellow stuff that originated in the Americas, and could not possibly be in the agora of ancient Athens.

Has Gary blundered with an anachronism? Actually, no.

The word corn comes from Old Norse, I believe, certainly long before the European discovery of America, and means any type of cereal grain. In North America, dictionaries uphold that meaning, but people usually only use the word to refer to the grain that is more precisely known as maize. There are of course grains other than maize, and they all fall under the general term of corn.

This is why, for example, Demeter is called the goddess of corn, but when you see images of her she is invariably holding sheafs of what you might call wheat. Likewise, it's always written that Vespasian in Roman times came to power by withholding the corn shipments from Egypt, even though the grain on board was definitely not yellow. The Golden Bough by James Frazier is probably the most important book ever written on ancient mythology, and he uses corn to refer to all cereal grains. These are all correct usage!

So when Nico sees corn in the agora, he does indeed. The specific type of corn is probably barley or wheat.

15 comments:

Sarah W said...

So settlers called maize by the generic term 'corn' because they didn't know what it was at first, and the name stuck.

Makes sense to me! I'm off to tell my mother-in-law, who was the only one who questioned Nico's usage of the word.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Sarah,

Right! Apparently the first European settlers in North America called it Indian corn, to distinguish from "real" corn. Then the Indian part got dropped.

RWMG said...

Have you read Lindsey Davis's rant on this very topic?

Donna Hole said...

A good question; and interesting answer.

Learn something new every day . .

........dhole

Gary Corby said...

Hi Robert,

I have indeed, and forthright it is too! The question seems to crop up regularly.

(The question crops up...get it? By Gad, I should write humour.)

Since the word corn appears numerous times in the Bible, how come it doesn't confuse North Americans there?

Trisha Leigh said...

Thanks for the interesting info. Now that I'm struggling with correct word usage in ancient periods myself, I admire your commitment and accuracy all the more.

PS WHEN IS THE NEXT BOOK?? :)

Tana Adams said...

Good to know! Thanx. I love both covers, BTW. =)

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

I always make that correction in my head because, in the US, corn always means one thing. This is a great "go-to" explanation of the confusion!

annebingham said...

I think "corn" might refer more to a kernel of anything, as in "corned beef" (beef preserved in kernels of salt) and having a corn on your foot (a round, raised callous).

Gary Corby said...

Trisha: finding the right words is one of the more exacting challenges. Welcome to the fun!

Thanks Tana and Vicky!

Anne, I have no idea on the origin of corned beef. Corn kernel though is the innermost grain. Corn refers to the plant. Kernel these days also means the innermost core of a computer operating system!

Kerrie said...

Most largish English towns has "corn markets" for selling locally grown wheat or whatever.
In Britain, the word corn is a generic term for cereal crops such as wheat, oats and barley.

Karin said...

To add to the corn confusion, here are the Swedish varieties: "Korn" is the Swedish word for barley, but "korn" is also used for all kinds of grains, including salt or sand. The Swedish word for (indian) corn is "majs", pronounced like mice. And yes, it has caused some raised eyebrows when I've used the wrong word in English. ("Could you pass me the mice, please.")

Skipperhammond@gmail.com said...

And naturally (that's a pun) there are many varieties of American maise, with important distinctions in Mexicans' diets. Many differences now--but pollen from Monsanto's Roundup Ready genetically modified corn is wiping them out. Perhaps some day there will be only one grain, then writers won't have to worry whether they're using the right word.

Gary Corby said...

Kerrie: yes, precisely! And that's the original meaning, as per...

Karin: your Swedish korn is where the English corn comes from! I'm guessing majs is cognate with maize. I had no idea, but it makes sense, doesn't it?

Skipper: I didn't realize there were varieties, but I should have. What do Mexicans call them?

Geoff Carter said...

More mindless detail;
The 'Corn Laws' were import tariffs to protect British farmers from cheep imported wheat - mostly from N America - a big issue in Politics of the early C19th.
There is quite a well known gig venue called the 'Corn Exchange' in Cambridge, but also similar buildings elsewhere like Edinburgh.