Coriander: what’s in a name?

I was looking through recipes online, when I discovered an American site talking about coriander. I was a puzzled: I thought the American English term for coriander was cilantro. Further perusing of the internet told me that in the Americas, cilantro refers to the plant and leaves, whereas coriander refers to the seeds. In Britain and many other parts of the world, coriander refers to the plant and all parts thereof:

Although the term coriander is used in much of the world in reference to both cilantro leaves and seeds, in the Americas, it generally refers to the dried cilantro seeds which are used as a spice both in whole form and ground.

I thought it was interesting that American lexically distinguishes the seeds from the leaves. Off-hand, I can’t think of other food that is distinguished this way. Is it because we usually seem to only eat one part of the plant? What do you think?

But how did the two different words originate in the first place?

Why are there different words?

I wondered why there are two different words. I turned to the the online OED to see if the etymology might help.

The OED says that both words come from Greek κορίαννον (apparently borrowed into Greek from another — unspecified — language) via Latin. In Latin, κορίαννον became coriandrum, which changed to coliandrum in popular use, and there’s the split.

Spanish cilantro derives from the popular Latin version. This makes sense to me given that Spanish derives from Vulgar Latin common Latin. The plant is native to Mediterranean areas:

Little is known about the origins of the coriander plant, although it is generally thought to be native to the Mediterranean and parts of southwestern Europe.

coriander plants

I presume the Spanish took both the plant and their word for it to what is now Latin America when they settled there. It seems reasonable to suggest that the large number of Spanish speakers in the Americas is the reason for American English adopting cilantro as their word.

English coriander derives from Latin coriandrum. It makes sense to me that English would use what would probably have been considered the more prestigious form, given the influence of Latin in making English a more prestigious language. But I digress.

So now we know why there are two words. What does each one mean?

Is there a difference in meaning?

The definition of cilantro given by the OED is particularly interesting:

cilantro n.

Cookery (chiefly U.S.).

In early use: the seed of the coriander plant. In later use (usually): the leaf of the coriander plant, as a seasoning or garnish, esp. when used in Mexican or Mexican-style cuisine.

cilantro, n. OED Online. March 2015. Oxford University Press. (accessed May 17, 2015).

So cilantro has only a culinary definition, although what it refers to has changed over time.

The word that cilantro came from, coliander, is cross-referenced to coriander rather than to cilantro:

coliander n.


a. = coriander n., q.v.

b. Applied to the Maiden-hair Fern (Adiantum Capillus-Veneris); in full, coliander maidens-hair.

c. coliander seed n. (also fig. in slang … ).

coliander, n. OED Online. March 2015. Oxford University Press. (accessed May 17, 2015).

I’m not entirely convinced the maiden-hair fern is relevant to the discussion.

The definition of coriander describes the plant, and also gives it as an obsolete word for the compound coriander-seed:

coriander n.

1. An annual plant, Coriandrum sativum, family Umbelliferæ, with compound leaves and globose fruit; a native of Southern Europe, the Levant, etc., naturalized in some parts of England. The fruit is carminative and aromatic, and used for flavouring purposes.

†2. Short for coriander-seed n. [see below] Obs.

†3. slang. Coin, money; short for coriander-seed n. [see below] Cf. coliander n. c. Obs.

coriander, n. OED Online. March 2015. Oxford University Press. (accessed May 17, 2015).

So there is indeed a difference: one word refers to the leaves in a culinary sense, whereas the other refers to the plant as a whole and to the seeds, but not specifically the leaves in a culinary sense.

Coriander-seed is not a compound I’ve heard of; it’s defined as:

coriander-seed n.

the popular name of the globose fruit, which contains two carpels; also slang, coin, money [see 3 under coriander].

coriander, n. OED Online. March 2015. Oxford University Press. (accessed May 17, 2015).

I understand this as meaning that coriander is an obsolete word for coriander-seed, the seed of the coriander plant or for the slang term for money. I have never heard anyone refer to coriander-seed; only to coriander, coriander seeds and ground coriander, and only in the culinary and botanical senses. I would suggest that it is coriander-seed that is obsolete, not coriander. I’m confused.

So now that we’ve cleared the coriandercilantro confusion up, it’s time to go out and spend some coriander-seed on some coriander — I’ve got a hankering for Mexican!


To view the OED entries, you might need a subscription to the OED. You won’t have to pay if you’re a member of a library or other institution with a subscription. Look under Accessing the OED on their help page.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.