In a Word: The Venom of Love

How a love potion gave us an elixir of death.

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Imagine you’re living in ancient Rome, and I mean ancient, and you’ve gone gaga for your new neighbor who just moved in from Sardinia. Problem is, that neighbor isn’t at all interested in you. (After all, you have no political connections, and you’re still wearing last year’s unfashionable togas.)

In hopes of improving your chances, you concoct a love potion with the intent to slip it into that neighbor’s wine. But what do you call your elixir?

Where you live (ancient Rome), the word venus is a common noun that means “sexual desire, charm.” (This is also where we get the name for the Roman goddess of love, sex, beauty, fertility, and a slew of other great stuff — Venus, who wasn’t officially adopted into the Roman pantheon until the 3rd century B.C.) So starting from the word venus, and using common changes to build other word forms, you call your love potion venesom, and you go about your dastardly deed, dreaming of the day your neighbor requites your heretofore unrequited love.

This is believed to be the earliest meaning of venesom: a love potion or a magical herb. But somehow, and pretty quickly, something went wrong. Maybe your venesom just ruined the flavor of your neighbor’s favorite wine, or worse, maybe you put just a little too much hemlock into the mix. For whatever reason, it wasn’t long before the word venesom took a negative turn and came to mean “poison,” which soon became the most common use.

Fast-forward almost two millennia: Venesom became the Latin venenum, which then transmuted into the Old French venim, which by the mid-13th century had been adopted into Middle English in a number of spellings, including venym and venim. The word wouldn’t settle on the modern spelling venom until the late 14th century.

So if you’ve ever wondered what became of Love Potion Nos. 1-8, this may be a clue.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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  1. Another interesting word that sort of (I guess?) explains why there’s that fine between love and hate. Venesom and venereal have to be related. The former makes me think of the word venison (the meat from deer), but I don’t think there’s a connection otherwise.

    The word’s been on a long and winding road. What venesom actually is, is what I like best here. Or at least the song you included. Love Doo-Wop, and this version is one I typically I haven’t heard. Really good, thank you. The usual #9 in my YouTube mixes is the 1963 version by The Searchers, looking really Fab 4 here. For a long time I didn’t realize they were also British. American music was the standard of the world back then, after all.


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