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Apicius' de re coquinaria (Roman recipe book believed to have been compiled in the 4th/5th century CE) contains, in the book 3 "cepuros" on vegetables, a paragraph (XX, recipes 115 to 121) entitled "sphondyli vel fonduli".

The book having been copied again and again during all middle-age, alternative spellings/titles exist such as funduli sive sfondili, spondyli vel fonduli, sphondyli vel funduli, spondili vel fonduli, ....

Because these recipes are in the vegetable section, sphondyli is believed to refer to cow-parsnip, or parsnip according to some authors. However early in the book a recipe of scallops uses the same word to designate the scallops (isicia ex spondylis). Finally, according to various dictionaries, sp[h]ondylus means alternatively "a kind of mushroom", "a vertebra", "the muscle of an oyster or another bivalve" or "a kind of muscle".

Needless to say, I'm confused and a few questions arise from this:

  • Are we sure (cow-)parsnips are the sp[h]ondyli meant in that series of recipes?
  • What is the etymology of this word for it to have such different meanings?
  • And what does fondul/funduli mean? (None of the translations of de re coquinaria I read have tried to translate it.)
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The original word is not fond-/fund-, but sphondylium, from the Greek σφονδύλιον. The original pronunciation would have been "sp-," but as the Greek phi softened, it turned into an /f/, and the /s/ in /sf-/ is masked by the /f/, which makes it sound redundant.

Back to σφονδύλιον, which is derived from σφόνδυλος, the normal Greek word for 'vertebra.' From the resemblance of verterbra, the word is also applied to mussels and oysters. Not coincidentally, the English for oyster comes the Greek ὄστρεον (via the Latin ostreum/ostrea) 'oyster,' which as you can tell itself derives from ὀστέον meaning 'bone.'

Despite σφόνδυλος meaning oyster in Greek, there is one occurrence (listed in LSJ, but perhaps elsewhere, too) of the word meaning 'verterbra' (ἵνα δὲ οἱ σφόνδυλοι καταλήγουσιν "where the verterbra end", Jul. Poll. 2.182).

As far as the plant goes, it cannot mean scallops/mussels/oysters here, since it's in the book on vegetables. Moreover, the section comes immediately before carrots and parsnips, which secure their identification. Walter Hill points out that the recipes are not only perfectly consistent with cow-parsnips, but resemble the recipes for carrots and parsnips. Scallops would be in book 9 under seafood and mushrooms in book 7.

  • +1 Thanks for this detailed explanation! I just wanted to point out however that since this manuscript have been copied, modified and probably a bit shuffled during all middle-ages the fact that it is "currently" in the vegetables section could be an error. But indeed if the recipes match the ones for the carrots and parsnips it would indeed confirm that this part is at its rightful place. – plannapus Mar 21 '16 at 8:17

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