I sometime go for walks in the wood near where I live, and in the undergrowth, beneath the oaks and pines, you'll find an evergreen prickly shrub which is called pungitopo in Italian. The word is derived from pungere (to prick) and topo (mouse). Its cladodes, which are easily mistaken for leaves, are like those of holly. In order to deter mice from eating their food supplies, it is said that country people would tie branches of pungitopo in a bundle and hang them with the preserved meats (salami, dried sausages, capocollo etc.) from the rafters or ceilings. As the bundle dried, the branches not only didn't lose their spiny ‘leaves’, but the spikes became sharper and deadlier.
The Germans call it Stechender Mäusedorn, which I think is literally translated as “pricking mice thorn”. In English, the same shrub is called butcher's broom. Dictionary.com says the term first appeared between 1555–65 although the plant obviously existed long before then. Several sources claim that the branches of this plant were used by butchers to sweep their chopping blocks clean and recent research suggests that the plant also contains antibacterial oils.
If we look at the meaning and etymology of broom we find the following by Oxford Dictionaries and Etymonline.
broom: A long-handled brush of bristles or twigs, used for sweeping.
Its origins date back to the name of several types of flowering shrubs, called brōm in Old English.
Old English brom, popular name for several types of shrubs common throughout Europe (used medicinally and for fuel) and characterized by long, slender branches and many yellow flowers, from Proto-Germanic *bræmaz "thorny bush"
As "twigs of broom tied together to a handle to make a tool for sweeping," mid-14c.
Spanish broom (Spartium junceum) fits the description above, indeed its flowers are yellow, and its branches are long and slender but it looks nothing like the butcher's broom.
So was the 15th century butcher's broom originally called holly? According to Etymonline and Wiktionary, holly dates back to holin, a shortening of holegn, and holen from Old English. And possibly derived from Proto-Germanic hulisaz (“butcher's broom, forest thistle, holly”)
The earliest citations I found of butcher's broom were in an English Italian dictionary, dated 1611, and in a compendium of therapies attributed to the renowned French barber surgeon, Ambroise Paré, written in 1649.
…which have relation to the spleen: as, as Time, Epithymum, Broom flowers. Cetrach, Capers, the bark of their roots, the bark of Tamarisk. Diureticks, such as respect the kidnies and urinarie passages: as, the roots of Smallage, Asperagus, Fennel, Butcher's broom, the four greater cold seeds, Turpentine, Plantain, Saxifrage. Arthniticks, or such as strengthen the joints: as Cowslips, Chamepytis, Elecampane, Calamint, Hermodactils, and the like.
In Italy, I am not aware that pungitopo was ever used for sweeping floors as the grain, saggina, in English “sorghum” or “broom corn/broomcorn” in the US, has been used to make brooms since the medieval.
Although the origin of broomcorn is obscure, sorghum apparently originated in central Africa. Production of this crop then spread to the Mediterranean, where people used long-branched sorghum panicles for making brooms in the Dark Ages. Broomcorn may have evolved as a result of repeated selection of seed from heads that had the longest panicle branches. The broomcorn plant was first described in Italy in the late 1500s. Benjamin Franklin is credited with introducing broomcorn to the United States in the early 1700s.
NewCROP Purdue University
As I was reading up on pungitopo and brooms in Italian, I came across the term bruschino, the diminutive form of brusca spazzola, a brush which can be used to either scrub the floors, wash the laundry or for grooming horses. The Italian bruschino looks very similar to the English “brush”–a coincidence?
As you can see, I managed to rake together some information but I'm still itching to know a few other things. Mainly...
- Were holly and butcher's broom called by the same name in Old English?
- English is a Germanic language, so why wasn't the plant called something like “prickly mouse”, “spiky mice thorn” or “prick-mice” like its German counterpart?
Is there any evidence, in art or in literature, that the plant was actually used by butchers to sweep the cutting block (or floors) in their shops?
Why is it a butcher's broom and not a butcher's brush? A broom has a long handle and is used to sweep floors, a brush has shorter bristles with a shorter handle.