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.