aloe (n.)

name of a group of shrubs or herbs with spiky flowers and thick leaves, yielding bitter juice which was used as a purgative drug, late 14c., originally in reference to the drug, from Latin aloe, from Greek aloē, which is of uncertain origin, probably a loan-word from an Oriental language.

A secondary sense is older in English: "Fragrant resin or heartwood of an East Indian tree" (Old English alewe, aloe), which is from misuse of Latin/Greek aloe in Biblical translations for Hebrew akhalim (plural), which ultimately is perhaps from a Dravidian language. OED says the Greek word probably was chosen for sound-resemblance to the Hebrew one.

The word then was misapplied in 1680s to the American agave plant, which has a similar appearance (and also a Greek name) but is unrelated. The "true aloe" (producing the drug) consequently is called aloe vera (with Latin vera "true;" see very). Related: Aloetic.

updated on September 18, 2022