Thanks to a friend of mine for sending me this article from Vol. 1 of “The Phytologist” edited by Alexander Irvine. It clears up a lot of confusion about the origin of the names “Waybread” and “Plantain”.
On Popular Names of Plants. Waybred (not Waybread), the ancient English Name of Plantago major
The Plantago major bears the above in old herbals, and this name Waybrede is by some supposed to imply that the plant has some connection with the staff of life, which is the support of all wayfarers, whether travelling along the highway from cities and towns to villages and hamlets, or jogging along through the occupations, employments, and cares of humanity, to that bourne whence no traveller returns.
In reference to the first part of the compound term Waybrede, there is no difference of opinion among our etymological botanists. “Waybrede,” says Mr. Fox Talbot, in his ‘Etymologies,’ “is an old name for the Plantain, a weed which grows very commonly by roadsides in England. But what has it to do with bread? It affords no nourishment of any kind. The German name for it isWegetritt, that is, Way-tread, good name, because it is trodden underfoot, growing on the hardest roads, etc. conjecture that the word Waybrede was mistaken by our old herbalists for Way-tread, etc.” Etym. p. 412.
Dr. Johnston (Bot. Eastern Borders) states that the various terms “Waybrede,Wayfron, Weyborn, Weybret, merely express the wayside habit of the plant, which is the child of roadsides and pathways.” This is true, but it only accounts for the first half of the name. Mr. Talbot’s conjecture, like the conjectures of many others fully as sapient as he, may be readily disposed of by the aid of few etymological facts which were as accessible to the learned author of the ‘Etymologies’ as they are to his humble servant, who ventures to help both these learned pundits, to correct the gratuitous conjectural assumption of the one, and to supply the omission of the other.
First, the term way in English is equivalent to wæg or weg in Anglo-Saxon, testeBosworth, on the authority of Ælfric and Somner. The other part of the term,brede, Dr. Johnston might have found among the peasantry of his ain countrie, for they still use the form braid for broad, as braid claith for broad cloth, testeJamieson. The German name of the plant is Wegebreit, or Wegbreit (old German, Wegabreita), English, Waybread; from breiten or ausbreiten, to dilate, or become or be broad; auch das Wegeblatt, or the Wayleaf, teste Heyse, Diet. 1828, in voce Weg. The Swedish name of the plant is Groblad, great or broad leaf. The Danish name of the same is Veibred, from vei, way, and bred, broad.
The applicability of the term broad to the Greater Plantain (Plantago major) is very obvious. The application of the term bread is absurd, and opposed to the true etymology of the name.
The Anglo-Saxon word for bread is not bred or brede, but hlaf, hence our word loaf; the German is not bred, but brod, and the Danish, brod. But the terms bred in Anglo-Saxon, breit in German, and bred in Danish, all of which are equivalents of broad, exactly describe one of the qualities of the plant, viz. broad-leaved the other, viz. way, its locality, for it is especially wayside plant.
In the north-east of Scotland the plant is never named Waybrede, nor have ever heard it so called in the southern counties of the island. Plantain, or Plantain-leaf, is its usual name, one of the many proofs which can be adduced that the scientific or Latin names have superseded the ancient vernacular terms, or that the terms are common both to the Latin and Celtic, and have descended to us from the latter language.
Planta, Latin, means the sole of the foot, hence the name Plantago or Plantain, plant which grows where the surface is trodden by the foot of the wayfarer. The Cornish word plans means foot, and is evidently from the same etymon as Latinplanta. Some say that the Celts, the ancient population of Britain, borrowed from the Romans all or most of the words which are similar to the Latin in sound and in sense. This is conjectural and the etymologist, as well as the botanist, has to deal with facts, not with conjectures.
The plant is not like the sole of the foot, hence its name is not derived from this character, and Richardson’s conjecture is untenable. See Richardson’s Dictionary in loco. Several forms or variations of the Celtic word plant mean progeny, children, also to plant, and hence plant in general. Richardson follows Ainsworth, without citing him. The latter informs us that Plantago is from planta, as Lappago is from lappa; “quod plantse pedum similis sit,” like the sole of feet. Richardson has made the fault his own by adopting the opinion without citing his authority. Vossius more prudently cites authorities, and pleads custom. “Festus,” says the latter authority, derives Plantain from planus, which conjecture comes from the Doric πλατα for πλατη, and the Latins as usual insert ν before τ.“ These Greek words intimate some connection between extension and this word plant hence our term platitude, breadth, mostly applied in figurative sense, rarely if ever in literal, natural, or physical sense, in which significations the terms broad, breadth, dilated, etc., are generally employed.
The Germans apply the term Wegetritt to the greater Plantain, but this modern application cannot explain our ancient term Waybrede, which is, as stated above, only variety of breit, or broad.