Why is garlic (usually) a noncount word?
One of the reasons that “garlic” is uncountable in English, could be due to its therapeutic properties and use in Classical and medieval medicine by Anglo-Saxon physicians. In fact, garlic juice was often a staple ingredient in many Anglo-Saxon cures and remedies.
Below is an Anglo-Saxon cure for an eye stye, which molecular microbiologists in Nottingham (UK) discovered successfully killed 90% of MRSA bacteria. The salve preparation is described in Bald's Leechbook, one of the earliest known medical textbooks, thought to be written during the 9th or 10th century. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the word leech is an obsolete term for physician from Old English læce
Watch The AncientBiotics Project, on YouTube, uploaded by the University of Nottingham,
‘Wyrc eagsealfe wiþ wænne: genim cropleac 7 garleac begea emfela, gecnuwa wel tosomne, genim win 7 fearres geallan begean emfela, gemeng wiþ þy leaces, do þonne on arfæt, læt standan nigon niht on þæm arfæt, awring þurh claþ 7 hlyttre wel, do on horn 7 ymb niht do mid feþere on eage; se betsta læcedom.’
From Cockayne’s 1865 translation
Work an eye salve for a wen, take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together, take wine and bullocks gall, of both equal quantities, mix well with the leek, put this then into a brazen vessel, let it stand nine days in the brass vessel, wring out through a cloth and clear it well, put it into a horn and about night time apply it with a feather to the eye; the best leechdom.’
Some four hundred years later, in the Middle English poem Piers Plowman, 1370–90, garlic was depicted as a piquant spice.
“I have good ale, gossib,” quod she, “Gloton, woltow assaye?”
“Hastow ought in thi purs?” quod he, “any hote spices?”
“I have pepir and pione,” quod she, “and a pound of garleek,
A ferthyng-worth of fenel-seed for fastynge dayes”
In effect, we have to wait until the 14th century before garlic made its first appearance in an official recipe book, Forme of Cury (cury = cookery). The vegetarian dish, Chyches, called for “a garlic hole”.
However, the English aristocracy and gentry stubbornly shunned garlic, their infamous contempt for strong smells is reflected in a 1609 verse written by Sir John Harrington, the English poet, and satirist.
Sith garlick then hath power to save from death,
Bear with it though it makes unsavoury breath;
And scorn not garlick, like to some that think,
It only makes men wink, and drink and stink.
Some two hundred years later, not much had changed, in 1818 Percy Byshhe Shelley wrote the following lines after he had paid a visit to Lord Byron in Italy.
“There are two Italies…The one is the most sublime and lovely contemplation that can be conceived by the imagination of man; the other is the most degraded, disgusting, and odious. What do you think; Young women of rank actually eat–you will never guess what–garlick! Our poor friend Lord Byron is quite corrupted by living among these people, and in fact, is going on a way not worthy of him.”
The British newspaper, The Guardian, reiterates that as recent as thirty years ago, the pungent plant (and considered a herb by many) was still viewed suspiciously by British Housewives
‘…during the second world war: food historian Ivan Day thinks garlic was seen as “foreign muck” by the generation of men and women living off bully beef and reconstituted egg - “they got a taste for simplicity”’.
It was this belief that garlic had to be either avoided or used sparingly in the kitchen that convinced speakers in the Anglosphere to consider it as a herb or spice (it is neither, officially, it is a vegetable) to season and enhance the taste of food. Similarly, salt and pepper, the most common seasonings, are mass nouns in English. But in Southern Europe, the word for garlic is countable just like onion is in English. In Italy, the word aglio is singular while its plural is agli, in Spain it is ajo, and ajos, and in France ail, and ails.
In an old Housekeeper's Manual, dated 1842, the following quantifiers are employed: “a small clove of garlic”, “a little bit of garlic”, “a little garlic (if approved)”, “a small piece of garlic”, “a very small portion of garlic”, and even “half a clove of garlic”.
It seems that English speakers did not and still do not (see comments) interpret garlic as a whole vegetable, unlike the onion, the leek, the shallot, or the chive which all belong to the Allium family and are all countable nouns. Instead, the semantic meaning of garlic is often associated with smell: (i) Your breath smells of garlic vs. (ii) Your breath smells of garlics (NO); or as an ingredient–to be used sparingly–in the kitchen, or used more generously by the lower classes as a cheap but effective remedy against infections, snake bites, ulcers, the bubonic plague, worms, whooping cough, edema, earache, deafness, and the simple cold, either eaten raw or crushed until its oil or juice was extracted.
In one such cure, the garlic properties are medicinal, and the vegetable is viewed primarily as a substance, not as a single entity.
The garlic ointment is a well-known remedy in North Britain for the chin-cough. It is made by beating in a mortar garlic with an equal quantity of hogs lard. With this the soles of the feet may be rubbed twice or thrice a-day; but the best method is to spread it upon a rag, and apply it in the form of a plaster. It should be renewed every night and morning at least, as the garlic soon loses its virtue. This is an exceeding good medicine both in the chin cough and in most other coughs of an obstinate nature…
Domestic Medicine; or, The family Physician 1774
However, there is some evidence that shows garlic was, sometimes, a countable noun in the 17th century.
The contemplation of the heavens, in a perpetual Speculum, or general Prognostication for ever
Pambotanologia sive, Enchiridion Botanicum
Garleeks (1683) The following guidebook contains five instances of garleeks
THE SCOTS GARD'NER
Evidently, garlic was not always an uncountable noun. As a matter of fact, Wiktionary lists garleeks as the plural form of garleek. And wild garlic is also named ramsons, a plural noun, derived from Old English hramsan, meaning “onion, broad-leafed garlic”, the plural form of hramsa,
it was only later that hramsan was interpreted as singular.
What's in a Name?
This reference suggests that it is the leaves which are reminiscent of javelins.
Garlic, gär'lik, n. A plant so named because its leaves are like lances or javelins.
[Sax. garlec–gar, a dart.]
A Smaller English Dictionary, Etymological, Pronouncing, & Explanatory (1872)
Written in 1905, the author of The Anglo-Saxon Weapon Names treated archaeologically and etymologically, states the following characteristics of an Anglo-Saxon spear
…the spear of the Anglo-Saxons consisted of the heavy spear used both for hurling and thrusting, and the lighter dart for hurling only. … while the gar, and eetgar may be either light or heavy.
- Beside this heavy weapon there must have been a lighter gar, inasmuch as the word is frequently employed to translate M.-Lat. spicula a very light kind of throwing spear or dart ("Spiculae sunt sagittae vel lanceae brevis ab spicarum specie nuncupatae" Isidorus Origines
18, 8). This spicula corresponds to Lt. cuspis, and made
up in sharpness what it lacked in weight (cf. Nonius Lt.
gaesum = telum tenerum).
Allium Sativum Var Ophioscorodon; they resemble remarkably to javelins or the light-weight Anglo-Saxon spears cited previously.