Is it just a coincidence that every time I come across this elegant word I can’t remember its meaning?
Yet each time I look it up, I realise we’ve met before. And it wasn’t on sad occasions – as far as I can recall.
From the Greek nepenthes: “ne (no, not) + penthos (pain, grief), nepenthes was slipped into the English language in the 1570’s. In 1595 the ‘s’ was dropped perhaps through the mistaken belief it formed a plural.
An Egyptian herbal remedy to soothe the mind of all troubles through forgetfulness, Homer wrote about nepenthes pharmakon:
Then Helen, daughter of Zeus, took other counsel.
Straightway she cast into the wine of which they were drinking a drug
to quiet all pain and strife, and bring forgetfulness of every ill.
Odyssey, Book 4, v. 219–221
Recreational drugs have been making the nepenthes promise ever since.
As someone who doesn’t rate avoidance for dealing with the shit life throws at us, I’m all for saying NO to nepenthes… unless the language gets tricky.
Botanist and father of modern taxonomy, Linnaeus referenced Homer’s work when naming the genus of carnivorous plants (commonly known as pitcher plant or monkey cups):
If this is not Helen’s Nepenthes, it certainly will be for all botanists. What botanist would not be filled with admiration if, after a long journey, he should find this wonderful plant. In his astonishment past ills would be forgotten when beholding this admirable work of the Creator! [translated from Latin by Harry Veitch]
Linnaeus was describing the species Nepenthes distillatoria but the whole family are distracting in appearance: