Open Questions Regarding Cumin

Well, first of all, I’ve already announced this on Facebook, but there’s cumin in Tbilisi. The Turkish market on Aghmeshenebeli next to the Turkish restaurant Cappadocia sells it – in fact you can smell it as soon as you walk in – and it goes by the name “kimion”, which is like Turkish or something. The store is conveniently located near the Marjanishvili metro station and the Ministry of Education.

And yes, it’s real-deal cumin. Not like dzira, or “liar’s cumin” as I call it. Just kidding. I never call it that.

Dzira – ძირა – often gets translated as cumin, but (as I found out when I tried to cook with it) it is definitely not cumin. That is, not in Georgia.

Zireh, on the other hand, is cumin – in Iran, Azerbaijan, and various other Persian-influenced nations. As far away as China, you have it called Zi Ran (among other names). In Sanskrit-influenced languages – Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Burmese, etc – it’s called something like Jeera or Zeera. Linguists might notice a theme here – it’s called something like Zireh/Zeera in basically every Indo-Iranian language, as well as a few languages with significant trade or exchange with Indo-Iranian languages.

The name “cumin,” meanwhile, can be found throughout Indo-European *and* Afro-Asiatic languages – it’s actually one of the words that is attested from linear B, meaning they definitely had it in ancient Greece; and it’s thought that the word comes from the Sumerian word “gamun” which was borrowed into Akkadian and thus inherited by the Semitic languages; and through trade made its way to Greek and the Indo-European languages. It is also thought that the ancient Egyptians used cumin medicinally, based I think on chemical analysis of residue on an urn or something.

I guess it’s not unusual to have a thing that has one word in the Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European, and another word in the others. What I can’t figure out is exactly how it happened.

You see, I was trying to figure out why dzira in Georgian refers to caraway rather than cumin. It’s not at all unusual for people to confuse caraway with cumin, and in many northern regions (like Germany) – where caraway is easier to grow – the name for cumin is some variation on the name for caraway; in southern regions, where cumin is happier, the name for caraway is often some variation on the name for cumin. The Caucasus mountains – and dzira, an integral spice in khinkali, has a closer association with the mountains than with the subtropical coastal areas or the temperate Alazani valley region – seem like they’d be a more likely host to caraway than to cumin, so it seems possible that Georgia has always had caraway, and borrowed the word “dzira” from visitors to the region (perhaps Persian invaders) who may have thought it looked like their zirah, which was actually cumin. That might also explain why Georgia has two words for caraway – dzira and kvliavi – where kvliavi may be the native Kartvelian word.

But it’s also possible that the proto-Indo-Iranian speakers, who came with their chariots and horses into and through the Caucasus and may have had trade with the Sumerians – brought the word when they left the steppes north of the Caucasus Mountains. If dzira was originally caraway, the proto-Indo-Iranians could have encountered it in the north, named it, shared the name with the proto-Kartvelians, then called cumin by the same name when they finally encountered it when they showed up in Iran and traded with the Mesopotamians. If that were true, then the Georgians would be the ones using the original name and everyone else would have switched. This theory is problematic for many reasons, though – it doesn’t explain “kvliavi”, caraway’s second name in Georgia; it doesn’t explain why caraway isn’t called something like “dzira” in non-Indo-Iranian Indo-European languages; and there’s not really a great amount of evidence for early contact between proto-Kartvelian and proto-Indo-Iranian, whereas there’s tons of evidence for contact between Georgian and Persian.

If we knew how the word “dzira/zireh/jeera” spread throughout the Indo-Iranian world, that might help, but opinions appear to be divided. It’s fairly clear that cumin itself moved East from Egypt and/or Mesopotamia, and was not indigenous to India or the surrounding regions of Asia, so it makes a lot of sense that the word would have been borrowed from Persian into Sanskrit – on the other hand, some scholars of Hindi claim that “Jeera” derives from a Sanskirt word having to do with digestion and either has nothing to do with Persian Zireh or was borrowed from Sanskrit into Persian – but that doesn’t gel with the historic movement of the spice itself. There could be some kind of coincidence going on, or the “Jeera” = digestion thing could be a mistaken etymology, but I just don’t have enough to go on to make the call. It seems unlikely for the word to have spread from Sanskrit to Georgian though, given the trade routes and timeline, but then again, Georgia was on the Silk Route, so who knows?

The other problem with the Sanskrit-origin is that the Persians probably interacted with the Mesopotamians before Sanskrit-speakers would have even encountered cumin. So I don’t like it.

I also don’t love the idea of the early Iranian speakers not borrowing the Mesopotamian local word for cumin if they first encountered it through commerce with the Mesopotamians.

There’s just so much we don’t know – but that’s the problem (and the real fascination, for me) when you’re dealing with words that may well predate writing itself.

Still, if anyone has any insight into the origin and distribution of the words Zireh, Jeera, and Dzira, please drop a note.

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4 Responses to Open Questions Regarding Cumin

  1. I’m having the same issues in Russian: can’t figure out whether tmin or zira is the right word for cumin. I’ll have to talk with the Uzbek spice merchants in Kazan to figure it out this summer.

  2. Wendy says:

    Great post!

    I’ve come across this problem, too. It seems that “zireh” in Farsi can refer to both cumin (zireh) and caraway (more correctly zireh siyah = black zireh).

  3. donbright says:

    Not an expert but I dug around a little and found some (maybe) interesting things. Basically it appears that Cumin, Caraway, Anise, Fennel, &c have all been confused with each other for a long time. Encylcopedia Iranica’s amazing Cumin article says “Confusion exists even among modern botanists.” ( ). They trace some of it back to translation issues and discuss both Avicenna of Persia and the ancient greek Discorides.

    Here is an example of the confusion drawn from some simple searches. Wikipedia’s English article for Caraway lists an alternate name as “Persian Cumin”. This term can be found in some old Google Books searches, ( like ), and some of them claim that in India “Persian Cumin” was called “Shahi Jeera”. This reminded me of how on Hindi Wikipedia, Caraway is listed as “Shahi Jira”, and Shahi sounds a little bit like a Persian word. But if you google search “Shahi Jira” you can find pages, like this food blog, , saying Shahi Jira is “Black Cumin”, equating it to Bunium Persicum. But the wiki page for Bunium Persicum , says it is not Caraway and not Cumin, and that is has been confused in it’s classification recently as well especially with Bunium bulbocastanum , which itself is sometimes called both “black caraway” and/or “black cumin”. But the kicker is when I do a web search on “Black Cumin”, I get a bunch of hits for Nigella Sativa seeds, but they look completely different than cumin or caraway, and Nigella Sativa itself is not even an Umbellifer.

    As far as Wikipedia articles for Cumin go (by examining the links at the bottom left of the English Wiki Cumin article), the “Cumin as Zira/Jira” group appears to also include (at least) Azerbaijani, Ossetian, Maldivian, Burmese, Nepalese, Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati, Oriya. There is also an unreferenced listing under claiming Zira in Chinese came via Uighur. Interesting that under Kurdish Wikipedia it has three words for Cumin, Reşke, zîre, kemyon.

    A mixup between Anise and Cumin is described in The Gardeners Dictionary from 1759, by Philip Miller, available on Google Books ( ). For Cumin he says that in Malta they had Cumino Aigro and Cumino Dulce, or cumin hot vs cumin sweet. But he says Cumin Sweet is actually Anise. “So that many of the old Botanists were mistaken, when they made two species of Cumin, viz. acre and dulce”. (Interesting side note… there is an Island of Malta called simply “Comino”). As for Caraway, Miller lists it under Carum and says the name might be either from Cara (“[Greek] the Head, as though good for the head”) or from Caria, a geographical region (which, upon websearch, was located in modern-day Southwestern Turkey.)

    • panoptical says:

      My intuition says that Zira in Chinese coming from Uighur is too late. If zireh and jeera are in fact cognate then the words have roots in proto-Indo-Iranian, so the words would have been in the region long before the Uighurs. The Chinese had cumin for at least a thousand years before the Uighurs showed up. I guess it’s possible that ziran replaced the older local word (“xiao hui xiang” is another Chinese name for cumin, but I don’t know which is older), but it sort of seems unlikely. It seems more likely that the Chinese would have taken the word from the traders who originally brought it – probably Indo-Iranian speakers.

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