The OLD and De Vaan both list the etymology of īlex (gen. īlicis) as unknown. There is also an adjective īlignus/īligneus, which De Vaan says "reflects *īliknos < pre-syncope *īlik-ino-s."

Given that this tree grows throughout Italy and Greece (as well as the southern part of France, with a related species in Spain and north Africa), are there any best guesses from which language Latin borrowed this word? Which languages in the area are not a possible source (e.g. it doesn't look Semitic) and why (it's not triconsonantal)? Could it not be Indo-European, as other major tree words are (including quercus, robur, pinus, but not malum).

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    I think a PIE origin is ruled out mainly on geographical grounds, since I don't think there are any formal problems with a hypothetical etymon like *iH-lék-s or *h₁éi-lk-s (if it passed through Celtic). Other than the lack of cognates, obviously.
    – Cairnarvon
    May 30, 2021 at 0:15
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    (On reflection *iH-lék-s doesn't work because of Dybo's law (yielding Latin ilex with a short i) and *h₁éi-lk-s passing through Celtic probably doesn't work because that would have yielded Celtic īalix. But some reconstruction is surely conceivable.)
    – Cairnarvon
    May 30, 2021 at 18:12
  • I'm accepting the answer for now, but I still invite other possibilities!
    – cmw
    Nov 3, 2022 at 22:06

1 Answer 1


By way of random stab I want to mention a Hesychian gloss:

ἴλαξ· ἡ πρῖνος, ὡς Ῥωμαῖοι καὶ Μακεδόνες

ilax: the holm-oak, according to Romans and Macedonians

(Greek α for Latin e isn't unusual: it was often felt Latin e [ɛ] was closer to α [a] than ε [e].)

If Hesychius (who, it has to be said, lived very late) is right about ἴλαξ being a "native" Macedonian word and not a loan from Latin, this makes it an interesting candidate for the source of the Latin word.

We can't tell if the ι in ἴλαξ is long, but the word has sometimes (though not, I think, by modern etymologists) been connected with Attic ὕλη 'wood', which has a long υ (ὕλη is itself cognate with Latin silva); a PIE preform like *swél-k-s might be constructed. If this is a real word and it has a long initial vowel it could very well enter Latin as īlex (the fact that it looks so much like the many preëxisting Latin words in -ex―even plant names: cārex 'sedge', rumex 'sorrel', ūlex 'heather'―means it slots neatly into the third declension).
Holm oak is a fairly valuable commodity, so presumably the word reached Rome through trade, conceivably through Greek, which wouldn't change it. The earliest attestation of īlex is in Ennius, who was born in Magna Graecia.

The big issue here is obviously that we know very little about Macedonian and its phonological history. Even if Hesychius is right, there are just too many unknowns to be sure.

(If it's related to ὕλη that also explains how it can be an Indo-European word when there are no holm oaks growing on the Pontic-Caspian steppe: the original word just means "(fire)wood".)

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    This is good stuff. I don't think though that the Romans would have gotten the word from the Macedonians, though? It grows so much in Italy that I would have assumed it was the other way around, no? (I'm no paleobotanist, so maybe it was all over Macedonia, too.) Definitely an interesting hypothesis.
    – cmw
    Jun 1, 2021 at 3:20
  • @cmw Sure, I'd think it'd be Italians selling to Greeks/Macedonians in this scenario, not the other way around, but if the trade in holm oak is the biggest use of it locally the foreign word for it conceivably might still displace whatever native term the Italians had. If it was such a generic word ("wood tree") in M. originally but never meant anything but specifically holm oak in Latin (another unconfirmable if), that may actually be a point in favour of that. (Though apparently holm oak does grow on the Macedonian coast.)
    – Cairnarvon
    Jun 1, 2021 at 13:14

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