Posted by: Didapper PJ13 FEB 2013
In my very first job as a newly qualified pharmacist I was asked by an elderly customer for glycerin and opodeldoc. I made enquiries of the wise old dispensing assistant, who explained that opodeldoc was a synonym for soap liniment BP and that it was popular among the older generation for rubbing on chapped hands when mixed with an equal part of glycerin (or glycerol, as we must now call it).
In its metric incarnation, opodeldoc’s pharmacopoeial formula calls for powdered soap 60g, camphor 45g, oil of rosemary 10ml, alcohol 700ml and enough water to make it up to one litre.
Although I have not handled a winchester of soap liniment in many years, I recently came across the word opodeldoc again and began to wonder where it originated. According to the wonderful World Wide Words website, the name was devised by the medieval physician Paracelsus (1493–1541), who, although still much celebrated in some quarters, seems to have been something of a quack.
Paracelsus conjured up the word “oppodeltoch” to describe a formula that went on to form the basis for all later versions of soap liniment. The essential ingredients were soap, camphor and alcohol, supplemented by various herbal essences.
One suggested origin for the unusual name is that Paracelsus took syllables from three of his ingredients. The first was opoponax, a fragrant resin from sweet myrrh, Opopanax chironium; the second was bdellium, a myrrh-like gum from Commiphora wightii; and the third was aristolochia or European birthwort, Aristolochia clematitis.
I find this etymology hard to believe. Even if those three substances did feature in Paracelsus’s recipe, they would not have been among the principal ingredients. Rather than resorting to such fanciful false etymologies we should just accept that the origin of the word is a mystery lost in history.