“A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey”

“A land flowing with milk and honey” (The Holy Bible, Exodus 3.8)

Madhuparka is a sweet honey and curd drink used in Hindu Vivaham marriage ceremonies.  Madhu, it seems, means honey or nectar in Sanskrit and the word has an intriguing past that language experts believe is a clue to the origins of so many of the world’s languages.

Honey collecting had been a practice in prehistoric times in the Near East as well having been depicted in Egyptian tombs of the third millenium B.C.  It is thought that this ancient food, and the words that name it, are evidence of a single people’s having issued their word for honey and it evolved as they spread out over the continents.  By comparing many of the world’s words for the sweet goodness, it is easy to come to this belief.

The Sanskrit word madhu and the Chinese word myit are related to the mit of the Indo-Europeans (Aryans), the medhu of the Slavs, and the mead of the English,” writes Reay Tannahill in Food in History.

Following from this, Latin’s honey is mel. In Ancient Greek it’s meli. Gothic had milith which was replaced by the Old English hunig.

Food in History, essentially a materialist view of human progress, relates that:

“Honey is almost pure sugar, and ferments very readily.  If the debris of a honeycomb were left neglected in water for a few days – perhaps to soak out the last drops of syrup – the result would be a delicious and mildly intoxicating liquid.  Honey ale – generally known as mead – was to be popular for thousands of years, particularly in countries where the grape did not grow and grain was not widely cultivated.  In England, mead did not lose its hold until the monasteries – where bees were kept for their wax (used to make votive candles) and the honey was only a commercially valuable byproduct – were dissolved in the sixteenth century.”

But wait, milith or mel didn’t abandon the English ship for good.  Joseph T. Shipley’s Dictionary of Word Origins claims that the pejorative phrase mealy-mouthed is our mel or milith of ancient times.  Meal-mouthed, used to have a more positive sense – ‘honey-mouthed.’  More surprising to me, however, is the origins of mildew:  it comes from the Anglo-Saxon word meledeaw, or honey-dew, now only a melon.

As Shipley argues, the term honey-dew, or mildew, used for mold is at least partially explained by the idea that if you call a disgusting phenomenon by a pleasant name, it becomes a bit more tolerable.

Still not impressed?  With the help of my Concise Dictionary of 26 Languages, check out this list of words of the golden syrupy goo:

Following the ‘M’ trail you have: English – mead; French & Spanish – miel; Italian – miele; Portuguese – mel; Rumanian – miere; Polish – miód; Czech & Serbo-Croatian – med; Hungarian – méz; Indonesian – mada; Russian – myot; Greek – me’li; Hawaiian – meli; Estonian – mesi; Mandarin Chinese – mi; Cantonese – mat; Hindi – madhu; and for good measure Esperanto – mielo.

I’m not sure how the ‘H’ sound came into being but this modest list is yet fascinating:  English – honey; German & Yiddish – honig; Dutch – honing; Swedish – honung; Danish & Norwegian – honning; Finnish – hunaja; and Japanese – hachimitsu.

A few divergent languages, however, include:  Arabic – aasal; Swahili – asali; Hebrew – dvasch; and Turkish – bal.  I don’t know enough about these language to conjecture upon the origins of their expressions.

Nevertheless and for fun, we’ll end with Shipley’s Dictionary of Word Origins as he quotes the ending of Kubla Khan with the lines:

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.



  1. Oliver said,

    June 27, 2009 at 6:29 am

    ‘and for good measure Esperanto – mielo.’



    One thing to keep in mind is that you can find a lot of similarities beyond just the starting sounds of a word (though it seems that those are indeed relatively stable). For instance the English word ‘Hemp’ apparently comes from ‘Cannabis’ but with a variety of drops and mutations.

  2. Pranjal said,

    June 27, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    Love it. Please keep us language nerds entertained with more posts like this.

  3. Brad B said,

    July 11, 2009 at 8:09 am

    A couple things. Honeydew is also a sweet sticky substance secreted by aphids and some other bugs as they feed on the sap of plants. Ants and some other insects then eat the honeydew. You can actually watch ants herd aphids and protect them to get their honeydew. If the honeydew stays on the plants it can lead to molds growing on the plant. So mildew and honeydew are probably related, interesting, but Shipley’s argument seems lame at best.

    As for the words for honey starting with h-, all are germanic languages except for Finnish and Japanese. Finnish has been heavily influenced by Swedish, and in it’s related languages Estonian and Hungarian the word is mesi and méz, respectively. Japanese I think it’s interesting to note the second half of the word -mitsu.

    I’m interested to know why Germanic languages switched from mead-like words to honey-like words.

  4. thedialect said,

    July 14, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    Brad B is totally on it. After reading his comment, I looked up hachimitsu and hachi and mitsu in my trusty Japanese dictionary and sure enough. It seems that hachi-mitsu is ‘bee-honey’ and mitsu-bachi is ‘honey-bee’ which would, presumably, mean that honey is really mitsu! That kicks so much ass! Thanks Brad B!

  5. George said,

    June 14, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    Which was what God told Israel they would come into in the land of Israel. And they did then and are there today. And we can go to God’s heaven by repenting of our sins and trusting the Lord Jesus Christ as our own p;ersonal Saviour. The one who was God manifest in the flesh, who died for all our sins on the cross and rose from the dead and went back up to heaven. His sinless blood was shed as the full atonement for your sins and to have them forgiven if you will come to him as a sinner and ask him in prayer to forgive your sins and save your soul from eternal hell fire and take you to his heaven when you die and he will. From God’s word, the Holy Bible. King James Version. for more info, HolyBible.com and fbnradio dot com. Sincerely ;

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