The phrase "sardonic grin," commonly used to describe a bitter or scornful smile, has its roots in a highly poisonous plant indigenous to the Mediterranean island Sardinia, according to new research.
Phytochemical analysis of Oenanthe crocata, or hemlock water-dropwort, a perennial that thrives near Sardinian ponds and rivers, revealed that toxic alcohols in the plant can cause facial muscles to contract, sometimes contorting into a sinister smile.
According to ancient reports, the plant was used in pre-Roman Sardinia for the ritual killing of elderly people who were unable to support themselves.
A burden to society, the people "were intoxicated with the sardonic herb and then killed by dropping from a high rock or by beating to death," Giovanni Appendino of the University of the Eastern Piedmont, and Mauro Ballero, of Cagliari University in Sardinia, and colleagues wrote in the latest issue of the U.S. Journal of Natural Products.
"This is a very subtle plant. It has a sweetish and pleasant taste and smells good. The name Oenanthe means 'wine flower,'" Appendino told Discovery News. "Indeed, the plant produces a state similar to drunkenness as well as locked jaws. There is little doubt that the Herba sardonica described in ancient literature is Oenanthe crocata The poet Homer first used the word 'sardonic' as an adverb when describing Odysseus' smile. The Greek hero "smiled sardonically" as he dodged an ox jaw thrown by one of his wife's former suitors.
According to some scholars, Homer coined the word after learning that the Punic people who settled Sardinia gave condemned people the smile-inducing potion.
However, the association with Sardinia has often been disputed, and the origin of the term remains obscure, according to Donald Lateiner, who teaches Greek, Latin, ancient history and comparative folklore at Ohio Wesleyan University.
"The ancients themselves and the later commentators were entirely unclear about what the word meant," Lateiner, the author of "Sardonic Smile: Nonverbal Behavior in Homeric Epic," told Discovery News. "The newly proposed concept is plausible but not provable. Personally, I doubt the Sardinian connection."
Whether Oenanthe crocata is at the root of the word sardonic or not, the finding may one day find application in medicine. According to the researchers, the molecules in the plant could be modified to have the opposite effect, causing muscles to relax, thus helping people recover from facial paralysis.