I've often wondered why the pungent plant called garlic is a mass noun. If I look at its etymology, I see it is derived from Old English.

Old English gārlēac, from gār ‘spear’ (because the shape of a clove resembles the head of a spear) + lēacleek’.

Garlic is said to be a mass noun, yet it is not an indistinguishable mass, it is "concrete" and can be smelt, seen, touched, peeled, chopped, and crushed. It is definitely a quantifiable “thing”. A (mass) concrete noun refers to an aggregation of things taken as an indeterminate whole {luggage} {cutlery} {stationery}, so in order for it be enumerated, a “unitizer” must be used in conjunction with the preposition of, e.g. a bulb of garlic

I could be tempted to explain that garlic is a mass noun because it is segmented, yet I am reminded that citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes, etc.) also have segments and they are all countable. Similarly, the closely related onion plant has an edible bulb which is made up of concentric layers, or more precisely, scales. In spite of its inner division, onions are not considered a mass noun.

Maybe the aromatic plant 1,000-700 years ago was vastly different from the one we are familiar with today because personally, I don't see that much similarity between an Anglo-Saxon spearhead and a clove of garlic.

enter image description hereenter image description here



  • Is there an explanation why garlic was considered uncountable by the Anglo-Saxons? Has it always been so?

  • Garlic appears to be a compound word, spear(head) + leek, which suggests it was either discovered and named when the word leek had already been established, or, the gārlēac plant used to have a completely different name. Is there any supporting evidence for my suppositions?

  • 1
    You're more of a linguist than me. I believe that in some other European languages "a garlic" means a garlic bulb, but I don't think that's the case in French. I'll have a look myself but if you know already you might want to comment. Also we have to consider whether they were referring to bulb garlic or wild leaf garlic (ramps or ransoms), which might behave in a similar way to "parsley" and other herbs as a mass noun
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 12:34
  • 1
    The leaves of wild garlic are also spearhead-shaped
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 12:35
  • 3
    See also the spring-onion-like top growth of the familair garlic (which is good to eat. Immature scapes are tender and edible. They are also known as "garlic spears", (wikipedia, emphasis mine). I'd like it better if etymonline cited the refernce to the clove resembling a spearhead (despite my answer)
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 12:44
  • 11
    Most all herbs and spices (and various other cooking ingredients) are treated in exactly the same way as garlic. Am I being obtuse here? I don't see why it should be surprising at all? Salt: a pinch of salt. Rosemary: a sprig of rosemary. Garlic: a clove of garlic ... Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 13:09
  • 3
    It might be due to garlic coming in both bulbs and cloves. A segment is not a natural unit for oranges, both because an orange segment is not a substantial amount of orange (a clove of garlic, on the other hand, can season an entire meal), and an orange, once segmented, goes bad quite quickly. Cloves are "individually wrapped", so to speak. Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 16:54

5 Answers 5


Not sure if this helps, but the origin appears to be from Middle English when the combination of the two terms took place. Usage of the Old English term appears to suggest a non- countable noun.

The modern English form has not changed a great deal over the course of history. Taking a step back to Middle English, we can find it variously spelled as garlec, garleek and garlek, among others. Let’s take a look at an example from 1399, from the Forme of Cury:

  • Take Colyandre Powdour of Peper and garlec ygrounde in rede wyne.

This work t ranslates as “forms of cooking” – the ‘cury’ is in fact from French cuire. It is a collection of recipes claimed to have been written by the Master Cooks of King Richard II.

Just a few years previously, Chaucer wrote in his Canterbury Tales:

  • Wel loued he gā̆r-lē̆k, oynons, and eek lekes.

Here, you can see that it has been written as two parts put together, and you might wonder why. The reason is, of course, simple. Garlic is indeed formed of two parts. It comes from Old English garleac or garlec in some dialects, which consists of gar and leac. We will start with the first element: gar. This meant ‘spear’. You have only to look at the shape of the cloves to see why it might be called a spear – they do indeed look similar to the shape of a spear-head. This term, gar, has of course become obsolete, but we can see a well-known example of it in Beowulf, from around the 10th century:

  • Hwæt! We Gár-Dena, in geárdagum, þeódcyninga þrym gefrunon

  • Lo! We have heard renowned the Spear-Danes’ great kings in days of yore

Let’s take a look at the second element: leac. There is nothing strange about this at all. Quite simply, it means ‘leek’, another word that remains little changed!

  • Ðæt greáta cráuleác; nim ðes leáces heáfda

That makes crow-garlic; take the leeks on the rise

From Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of early England, a collection of Old English source texts.

The Old English word is thought to derive from Proto-Germanic *lauka. There are cognates to be found in other Germanic languages; Swedish lök and Danish løg both meaning ‘onion’,Dutch look and German Lauch, meaning ‘leek’.

(The Millers Tale)

Garlic from aphaDictionary.com

Notes: Although it refers to countable objects, garlic is a mass noun, which means that it has no plural. It behaves like nouns referring to masses or substances with indeterminate boundaries, like water, air, and contemplation. We can say, "two onions" but never "two garlics"; instead, we must say "two heads of garlic" or "two cloves of garlic".

Garlic as a mass noun from Lexical meaning:

8–3 Onion is generally a count noun, and garlic generally a mass noun – one says an onion but not #a garlic , and a head of garlic but not a head of onion or a bulb of onion. Onion can be treated as a mass noun, however, In contexts like “this soup has too much onion*” ...

Wierzbika notes that both onions and garlic are used chopped up as an ingredient....Since they are usually experienced chopped, their integrity as individuals is compromised. That is why they can be both used as mass nouns...but Wierzbika notes that whole onions are sometime prepared and eaten....head of garlic are not eaten this way because of the paper between the cloves.

  • 1
    FYI, Beowulf as a poem probably dates from the 6th century, and was probably written down in the 8th. It's the surviving manuscript that dates from the late 10th/early 11th century.
    – walrus
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 16:34
  • Just for the record: I’m not sure where Nicola Miller got her translation of the last OE quote (in a more standard spelling: þæt greata crauleac; nim þes leaces heafda), but it’s quite wrong. What it actually means is “…the great crow-leek; take this leek’s heads…”. (Here is the original, with translation on the following page.) Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 20:44

Only answering the resemblance part of your question:

I grow garlic, and while I'm aiming for the same plump cloves you get from commercial garlic it doesn't always work that way. Garlic grown in poor soil lacks the curvature of the clove in your picture and is much smaller. Its shape is similar to the 5th or 6th spearhead in your top row, if you ignore the part into which the shaft is inserted.

I suspect my rather pathetic bulbs (I get decent ones as well) are closer to ancient garlic than those grown with lots of fertiliser and sold.

A rather pathetic garlic clove

This clove is just under 1 cm long; Although it lacks the symmetry of most of the spear-heads it's rather closer the the typical bought stuff. This is actually grown from supermarket garlic so is a modern high-yielding variety. I had already discarded the thinnest cloves as not even worth planting.

  • hmm, it never occurred to me to grow garlic like that, but I may have to try it now.
    – Kevin
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 1:06

It appears that garlic was pluralized and countable more frequently in archaic use.

The OED gives an early attestation where garlic is countable alongside onions.

The leke, and the vniowns, and the garlekes [L. allia].

  • 1382 - Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) Num. xi. 5

Early instances of garlic

Note that these attestations appear to modern readers to be a pluralization, but in Old English this actually represents the singular genitive. See the comment by Janus Bahs Jacquet below.

An early attestation is under a different headword, specifically head, definition II. 15. a.:

II. A thing or part of a thing resembling a head in form or position; a position analogous to that of the head.

15. With reference to plants and fungi.

a. A bulb of garlic

This sense offers an attestation of garlic from Early Old English.

[Translations to modern English provided below are approximate based on research that I've done. I'm not an expert in Old English.]

Genim garleaces þreo heafdu & grene rudan twa handfulle.

[ME]: Take three head of garlic and two handful of green rue

  • eOE Bald's Leechbk. (Royal) (1865) ii. xxxii. 234

The broader context of this quote is not clear to me, but a larger portion of this text can be found online here in Library of Anglo-Saxon prose: Smaller Anglo-Saxon monuments I.

Another Old English citation comes under the headword "pepper."

Cnucian godne dæl garleaces & don þærto & piperian, swaswa þe þince.

[ME]: Crush [or pound] a good amount of garlic and add pepper... [See extended modern English translation below]

  • OE Recipe (Wellcome 75.46) in Archiv f. das Studium der Neueren Sprachen (1890) 84 325

Note that OED describes this text as from an Old English recipe, but a broader portion of the text accessed on the Digital Resource and Database of Palaeography, Manuscript Studies and Diplomatic at King's College London provides a modern English translation of a larger portion of the text and suggests that it was a medical recipe.

Man sceal niman clæne hunig, swylc man to blacan briwe deþ, 7 wyllan hit neah briwes þicnesse 7 niman rædic 7 elenan fillan 7 hrefnesfot. Cnocian, swa man betst mæge, 7 wringan þonne þa wyrta 7 geotan þæt wos þærto 7 þonne hit beo forneah gewylled, cnucian godne dæl garleaces 7 don þærto 7 piperian, swaswa þe þince.

One shall take pure honey, such as is used to lighten porridge, boil it to almost the thickness of porridge; take radish, elder, wild thyme, cinquefoil, pound them as well as you can; and when it is almost done mix in a good measure of garlic and put to it as much pepper as you think.

Why garlic became uncountable I cannot tell, but we know for sure that it was sometimes treated as a countable noun in archaic uses, as in the example provided from 1382 and others.

  • I'd really appreciate it if you could find your way to translate/interpret those early OE sentences into modern English, they are completely incomprehensible, excluding the references to "garleaces" to me.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 9:06
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    @Mari-LouA I'm not an OE expert, but I believe the edits I added are approximately the modern English equivalent. Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 20:03
  • Thank you, do you think the aforementioned garlic was used in cooking or for tonics, ointments or remedies?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 20:23
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    @Mari-LouA good question, I had assumed it was used in cooking, but further research shows that the second citation did refer to a medical recipe (you seem to have a strong innate sense for these sorts of things!). I can't decipher the context around the first citation, but I added a link to the larger text. Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 21:28
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    Unfortunately, your OE examples are both singular, not plural: gārlēaċes is the genitive singular of gārlēac in OE. If it were plural, it would have been gārlēaca instead. The 1382 example is definitely plural, though. It is perhaps also worth noting that while Duden says German Knoblauch also has no plural, the Scandiwegian forms (Da. hvidløg, Sw. vitlök, No. vitløk, Ice. hvítlaukur, Fa. hvítleykur) are all perfectly happy to pluralise and all refer to a single head/bulb in the singular as well as functioning as a count noun, just like onion does. Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 22:07

As with deer and lamb, the culinary use of "garlic" refers to a substance more than a unit. It also commonly refers to flavor/aroma, especially once processed. Consider the similar use of "clove", though some recipes may specify "cloves" when the individual cloves are counted.

It's also worth mentioning that in cooking garlic is often measured in "cloves" (the small lobes making up a bulb) and "heads" (complete bulbs).

The Russian word for "onion" is "лук" (similar to "Luke" with the "u" more closed) and is handled uncountably, as a material instead of countable units. I suspect that it's cognate with "leek".

CAVEAT: This is all based on personal observation and are not necessary printed in a bound book somewhere. I haven't performed a linguistic survey to verify my belief.

  • Are you suggesting that 'garlic' is likely uncountable in most languages?
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 23:51
  • No, just explaining why I would guess that it's probably often uncountable in Germanic and Balto-Slavic languages.
    – Epanoui
    Commented Dec 10, 2017 at 6:04

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.

Garleeks (1662)

enter image description here
The contemplation of the heavens, in a perpetual Speculum, or general Prognostication for ever

garlick (1665)

enter image description here
Pambotanologia sive, Enchiridion Botanicum

Garleeks (1683) The following guidebook contains five instances of garleeks

enter image description here


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,

enter image description here

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. garlecgar, 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.

further along

  1. 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).

tall garlic plants resembling javelins

Allium Sativum Var Ophioscorodon; they resemble remarkably to javelins or the light-weight Anglo-Saxon spears cited previously.

  • 1
    Also onions were used as medical remedy, but they are countable nonetheless. 1,000-year-old onion and garlic eye remedy kills MRSA bbc.com/news/uk-england-nottinghamshire-32117815
    – user 66974
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 19:55
  • @user159691 your link tells me nothing I didn't already know, the antibacterial discovery is mentioned in my answer. The fact that onion also has therapeutic properties but it is countable is not news to me either. I am proposing that garlic was rarely used in the kitchen, and when it was, it was used sparingly, and in v. small quantities. What's your idea?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 20:21
  • My point is that the medical usage is not probably the reason why garlic was treated as a mass noun. If so the same would hold for onions. As for its use in the kitchen, we can just speculate, but its therapeutic properties were known and probably for that reason used also in cooking.
    – user 66974
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 20:47
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    @user159691 slowly roasted garlic with meat (chicken, or pork) is actually delicious, the pungency disappears, but the flavour, its taste is enhanced. The thing is not to burn it.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 21:07
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    @Mari-LouA - But I think onion can be used both ways. Cf. cinnamon: This pie has too much cinnamon. Examplels: These refried beans could do with a bit more onion, for my taste. You went overboard on the onion for the soup this time. Commented Dec 20, 2017 at 19:12

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