Ad and marketing creatives

Going Medieval: The Revival of "Apothecary"

Stroll through the hipper districts of any American city in 2014 and you may experience the sense of time being slightly out of joint. On shop signs and menus, words that last flourished a couple of centuries ago—or earlier—have been making a comeback. New-fashioned haberdasheries (early 15th century) sell bespoke (mid-18th century) suits; trendy bars hire mixologists (mid-19th century). But no word from the distant past is as antique, or as popular in commerce in so many disparate ways, as apothecary.

My curiosity about apothecary was piqued last year when a new sausage-and-beer restaurant, Hog's Apothecary, opened in my hometown of Oakland, California. A curious name, I thought, for an establishment that sells food and drink rather than medicines, the traditional purview of apothecaries.

Then I began seeing "apothecaries" everywhere. One, hewing close to the historical sense, was a compounding pharmacy, but several sold candles, or bath and beauty products. (In New York City, M.S. Apothecary uses the slogan "Where Beauty Is a Drug.") Until it closed a few years ago, a San Francisco store called simply Apothecary sold children's clothing. An online home-décor retailer touts "Apothecary Chic" (distressed-metal cabinets, glass jars with old-timey labels, wooden shelves). Evergreen Apothecary in Denver and The Apothecarium in San Francisco dispense medical marijuana. Chicago has Arch Apothecary, a "luxury beauty and style bar" established in 2012, and it has Merz Apothecary, a pharmacy established in 1875. "Because [Peter] Merz was of Swiss descent," the website explains, "he decided to call the store an ‘Apothecary' in the European tradition."

How did one word "in the European tradition" come to describe all these dissimilar businesses in the United States? For the answer, we need to time-travel.

"Apothecary" is a very old word indeed. It first appeared in English in the mid-1300s, imported from Old French, which had adapted a late-Latin word, apothecarius, meaning "shop-keeper." In English, too, apothecary originally meant a person: "a shopkeeper, especially one who stores, compounds, and sells medicaments." That sense is maintained by the Visual Thesaurus, which gives five synonyms for "apothecary," all describing professions: chemist, pill-pusher, druggist, pharmacist, and pill-roller. Toward the end of the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer mentioned an apothecary in "The Nun's Priest's Tale": "Though in this toun is noon apothecarie,/I shal myself to herbes techen yow." In Romeo and Juliet, a "caitiff wretch" of an apothecary sells Romeo the potion with which our hero commits suicide.

It wasn't only Shakespeare who held apothecaries in low regard. In his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, first published in 1785, Francis Grose wrote that apothecaries were "as superficial in their learning as they are pedantic in their language." Grose documented several slang terms using apothecary, all of them disparaging: an apothecary's bill was a long bill; apothecary's Latin (also known as dog Latin) mangles the classical tongue; "to talk like an apothecary" meant "to prattle."

But before Latin apothecarius there was a Greek source, apothēkē, which means "a repository or storehouse"—a building, not a person. The Greek word and meaning gave rise to two linguistic cousins familiar to many of us today: French boutique (a small retail shop) and Spanish bodega (a small grocery store). It's this sense—apothecary as a place of business, not the person who runs it—that dominates today.

Until recently, apothecary had a musty reputation in American English. Its usage had declined steadily for the last 150 years (see the Google Ngram), and when it appeared at all, it was often in histories or in historical fiction such as The Apothecary's Daughter, a 2009 romance set in Regency England. Apothecary also shows up in the titles of how-to books about traditional remedies.

Then, over the last decade or so, apothecary began appearing in new contexts—like that Oakland gastropub I mentioned earlier. Oakland magazine explained the reasoning behind the Hog's Apothecary name: "Just as a pharmacy serves an array of cures for ailments, so Hog's Apothecary serves a number of ‘cures' to its patrons." Besides, the owner explained, sausage and bacon are "cured" meats. It's a stretch, but it demonstrates the contemporary glamour of apothecary.

How did this medieval word become so chic in the 21st century? Nostalgia plays a role: a reaction to the disembodied virtual life, a yearning for experiences less mediated by technology and more informed by creativity and gentility. More specifically, I propose that the steampunk subculture, which blends elements of Victorian-era design with science-fiction and fantasy, is another important factor. Along with influencing fashion, invention, facial hair, and popular culture—the Doctor Who television series, the Robert Downey, Jr., Sherlock Holmes remakes—steampunk has inspired linguistic and artistic revivals. Ornate typography and illustration, as in the Hog's Apothecary logo, show the influence of steampunk.

For Americans, apothecary carries a whiff of the Old World, and especially Great Britain, which has been exerting a steady influence on the language of commerce. I'll explore this topic at greater length in a future column, but for now I'll just direct your attention to the aforementioned bespoke, which the Wall Street Journal traced to London tailor shops and found attached to an American investment firm, software company, and bicycle shop; and to stockist (a retailer or distributor), opening hours ("hours" in the U.S.), and queue (line)—all Britishisms used in the U.S. to add an imagined air of class and tradition to marketing copy.

Not for nothing, apothecary is fun to say.

In the eyes of the law, however, apothecaries are serious business. Here in California (and maybe elsewhere), the use of "apothecary" is legally restricted to licensed pharmacies. The state board of pharmacy has, on at least a couple of occasions, wielded that law—enacted in 1905—against non-druggist apothecaries. In 2008, the board warned Apothecary, the San Francisco children's-clothing store, to either change its name or close its doors. "Imagine ending up in legal hot water for not selling drugs," a local newspaper wryly commented. The store owner chose to go out of business rather than rebrand.

So far, Hog's Apothecary and its kin appear to have escaped censure. Perhaps they've claimed the linguistic defense, citing the rich history of apothecary. The Greeks had a word for it, after all, and if apothēkē was their boutique or bodega, why can't it be ours?

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.