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Yesterday I went to Philadelphia's famed Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians.  I hadn't been there for about 35 years, so it was nice to reacquaint myself with some favored old exhibits (human beings with long horns growing out of their forehead, fetuses at all stages of formation and deformation, bodies with extra heads and limbs, gigantic tumors and colons, etc.), though a few of the most famous items had disappeared (e.g., shrunken heads, apparently because they had been "unethically procured").

One of the most striking exhibits — for me, since most people probably would not pay much, if any attention to it — was the one about bezoars.  They are nondescript objects that look like stony balls.  Even in section, they are not very exciting to look at, because they are basically a hard, indigestible mass of material such as hair, plant fibers, or seeds that form in the stomach or intestines of animals, especially ruminants, sometimes also humans.

Bezoars had value because they were believed to have the power of a universal antidote against any poison. Tradition held that a drinking glass which contained a bezoar would neutralize any poison poured into it. The word "bezoar" ultimately derives from Persian pād-zahr (پادزهر), which literally means "antidote."

Ox bezoars (cow bezoars) are used in Chinese herbology, where they are called niu-huang (牛黃) or calculus bovis. These are gallstones, or substitutes, from ox or cattle gall bladder bile. There are artificial calculus bovis used as substitutes. These are manufactured from cholic acid derived from bovine bile. In some products, they claim to remove toxins from the body.


I probably first encountered bezoars in my research on medieval Chinese medicine about half a century ago.  Inasmuch as I had never heard anyone speak the word, I just made up my own pronunciation, and it consisted of three syllables:  beh-zoe-are.  I knew that was likely wrong, but that's how it registered in my brain.  Now that I am writing this post about "bezoar" and will undoubtedly be talking about it to others more often, I had better learn how to pronounce it properly.  Here are some dictionary phonetic spellings: 

1. bē′zôr′    (American Heritage)

2. ˈbiːzɔː    (Collins)

3. ˈbi zɔr, -zoʊr     (Random House)



If you want to hear the word "bezoar" pronounced by reliable sources, here are the Director and the Curator of the Mütter Museum talking about these mysterious specimens.

Let's delve a bit more deeply into the etymology of "bezoar":

From French bézoard, based on Arabic بَازَهْر(bāzahr), from Middle Persian pʾtzhl (pādzahr, bezoar, antidote). In ancient times, bezoars from animals were ground up and ingested as remedies for various maladies and as antidotes to poisons.


1540s, "stone used as an antidote against poison," via Medieval Latin, from Arabic bazahr, from Persian pad-zahr "counter-poison," from pad "protecting, guardian, master" (from Iranian *patar-, source also of Avestan patar-, from PIE *pa-tor-, from root *pa- "to feed, protect") + zahr "poison" (from Old Iranian *jathra, from PIE *gwhn-tro-, from root *gwhen- "to strike, kill;" see bane). Later in reference to a concoction from solid matter found in the stomachs and intestines of ruminants, which was held to have antidotal qualities (1570s).


As a Sino-Indian specialist, I was deeply curious about how "bezoar" got its odd-sounding Chinese name:  niúhuáng 牛黃 ("cow yellow").  It turns out that the term was borrowed from Sanskrit.  Most interesting of all to me is that it entered the Sinitic lexicon in pre-Buddhist times.  See ZHU Qingzhi, "Some Linguistic Evidence for Early Cultural Exchange Between China and India", Sino-Platonic Papers, 66 (March, 1995), 1-7 (pdf).

The Sanskrit origin of the Chinese niúhuáng 牛黃 ("cow yellow") is gorocanā गोरोचना ("bright yellow orpiment prepared from the bile of cattle; yellow patch for the head of a cow; bezoar").  In his article, Zhu discusses five such pre-Buddhist borrowings from Sanskrit into Sinitic.  It is telling that four out of five of these early Sanskrit borrowings in Sinitic have to do with go गो / niú 牛 ("cattle").  The paramount importance of cows in Indian culture is well known.

Zihan Guo comments:

It is fascinating to know that cultural exchange between Chinese and Sanskrit on the word niúhuáng 牛黃, as I have always been bewildered by the expression "cow's yellow." The medicine my mother has been taking is called Niúhuáng jiědú piàn 牛黃解毒片 ("Cow's yellow poison dispelling tablets") , which is commonly used by Chinese people to treat shànghuǒ 上火 (TCM [traditional Chinese medicine] "to suffer from excessive internal heat; to become inflamed; to have inflammation") (source) and is very effective. I bet every Chinese family keeps some at home in case they eat too much spicy food as did my mom. As the name and the sources you cite indicate, it has the effect of neutralizing poison, and huǒ 火 ("excess heat") is a kind of dú 毒 ("poison").

A final note on the historical significance of bezoar:  when we say "caveat emptor / buyer beware", this phrase was inspired by a celebrated court case involving bezoar.

Chandelor v Lopus (1603) 79 ER 3 is a famous case in the common law of England. It stands for the distinction between warranties and mere affirmations and announced the rule of caveat emptor (buyer beware).

A man paid £100 for what he thought was a bezoar stone. This is a stone that forms in animals' intestinal systems, and was believed to have magical healing properties. The seller said it was a bezoar stone, which turned out to be false. The buyer sued for the return of the £100 purchase price.

How the claimant discovered that the bezoar did not work is not discussed in the report.

The issue for the court was whether the sales pitch had been the usual big talk of the market merchants in the plying of their wares, or if there had been indeed an actual deceit in the transaction.

The Exchequer Court held the buyer had no right to his money back, saying "the bare affirmation that it was a bezoar stone, without warranting it to be so, is no cause of action." The majority of the judges held that the buyer was required to show either that the seller knew the stone was not a bezoar, in which case the seller was liable for deceit, or that the seller had warranted (contractually guaranteed) that the stone was a bezoar, in which case the seller would be liable for breach of warranty. Since the seller in this case was not alleged to have done either of these things, the buyer's claim failed.

Chandelor long stood as an impediment to any common law development of consumer protection systems.

Only in the nineteenth century did the law begin to evolve a doctrine of implied warranty.

This judgment predated a common law recognition of fraudulent misrepresentation by 180 years.


Appearances can be deceiving — doubly so.


Selected readings


  1. jhh said,

    August 2, 2021 @ 1:01 pm

    I learned the word "bezoar" reading the Harry Potter novels :)

  2. Scott P. said,

    August 2, 2021 @ 3:22 pm

    Was going to post what jhh said. For the record, here is how Alan Rickman pronounced it:

  3. Arthur Waldron said,

    August 2, 2021 @ 6:29 pm

    Along with caffeine and antihistamine,standard ingedient in Chinese Cold remedies

  4. martin schwartz said,

    August 2, 2021 @ 6:44 pm

    Let's delve more fully into the etymology of bezoar: ,,, from
    Arabic … from Middle Persian pādzahr < *pātijanØra- (Ø = theta)
    nominalization with lengthening ("vrddhi" ) of initial vowel
    from adjective *pati-janØra- 'counterung poison',
    from preverb *pati- 'counter to, anti-' (nothing to do with √pā 'protect' etc.) and *janØra- 'poison' < √jan 'to kill' …..
    The word is attested in Sogdian as */pātžār/; it is attested in a Buddhist text edited by Benveniste in his collection of Sogdian texts

  5. cameron said,

    August 2, 2021 @ 9:45 pm

    The zahr portion of the Persian word from which bezoar derives is common enough in modern colloquial Persian. But it means "venom" rather than "poison". It occurs especially in the phrase zahre mār, which literally means "snake venom", but is commonly used as an exclamation. The more common word for poison is sam (سَم).

  6. Bathrobe said,

    August 2, 2021 @ 9:50 pm

    The Mainland translation of Harry Potter uses 牛黃 niú-huáng 'cow yellow'.

    The Taiwanese translation uses 毛糞石 máofěnshí 'hair manure rock'.

    The terminology isn't quite so straightforward. Moping around Wikipedia: 牛黃 niú-huáng is Calculus bovis or ox bezoars (dried gallstones of cattle used in Chinese herbology), also known as 丑宝 chǒu-bǎo 'ugly treasure'.

    马宝 mǎ-bǎo 'horse-treasure', commonly known as 马粪石 mǎfěnshí horse-manure-stone, is formed in the digestive tract of a horse.

    According to this page (, medically, stones formed in the digestive tract are composed of two types: :毛糞石 máofěnshí ('hair manure stones') or 'trichobezoare' and 植物糞石 zhíwù fěn-shí ('vegetable manure stones') or 'phytobezoare'. Trichobezoares are, as the name suggests, composed of hair. Phytobezoares are formed of undigested vegetable fibres.

  7. Bathrobe said,

    August 2, 2021 @ 9:59 pm

    In Harry Potter, a bezoar is a stone found in the stomach of a goat that will save you from most poisons. So 牛黄 niú-huáng 'cow yellow' isn't technically correct, but the attribution of special properties to the stone makes it an apt translation. 毛糞石 máofěnshí ('hair manure stones') is technically correct (although not specific as to the animal) but doesn't seem to imply any special properties.

  8. martin schwartz said,

    August 2, 2021 @ 10:33 pm

    @Cameron: Yeah, Modern spoken Persian uses Arabic sam(m)
    for early/Middle Persian zahr 'poison' in general, including venom,
    cf. Yiddish sam 'poison'< Hebrew vs. German Gift. In fact,
    zahr 'venom' results mainly from the fixed phrase zahr-e mār
    'poison of a snake', a phrase I know as an exclamation because an Iranian girlfriend would use it to curse at other drivers who posed a nuisance.

  9. martin schwartz said,

    August 2, 2021 @ 10:39 pm

    p.s. @ Cameron: It was the pre-Islamic Iranian linguistic context in which I was speaking. No Arabic loanwords there.

  10. Daniel Tse said,

    August 3, 2021 @ 12:33 am

    I've always wondered this about the Middle Persian transcriptions that I occasionally see in Wiktionary — I understand that it's a transcription of an abjad, and so is missing consonants, but why is the reflex of modern Farsi /r/ transcribed as _l_, as in the example in Victor's post: pʾtzhl -> pādzahr?

  11. Bill Benzon said,

    August 3, 2021 @ 7:27 am

    Since I was not familiar with the term, the title led me to expect some kind of play on "Bezos," like:

    What do you call it when a billionaire takes a suborbital joy ride sporting a cowboy hat?

    A bezoar.

  12. cameron said,

    August 3, 2021 @ 7:59 am

    Middle Persian pādzahr lives on in modern Persian پادزهر – antidote

    That word is less common than the very common fixed phrase zahre mār but not entirely unknown

  13. Xerîb said,

    August 3, 2021 @ 9:34 am

    The precise origin of character 黃 is uncertain, as far as I can gather, but it was apparently originally a picture of a person with something on or in the abdomen or chest. Is this relevant to the translation 牛黃, or just a coincidence?

  14. rpsms said,

    August 3, 2021 @ 1:59 pm

    Just to highlight what @bathrobe said (it is buried in the text):

    niúhuáng refers to gallstones. However, the modern, scientific definition of "bezoar" is *not* a gallstone.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    August 3, 2021 @ 4:09 pm


    huáng 黃

    Glyph origin

    According to Shuowen, it is both a phono-semantic compound (形聲, OC *ɡʷaːŋ) and ideogrammic compound (會意): phonetic 炗 (“light”) + semantic 田 (“field”) – the color of earth, with 炗 being the ancient form of 光 (OC *kʷaːŋ, *kʷaːŋs, “light”). However, this interpretation is likely erroneous as 廿 at the top was formed as a result of corruption of 口 in the bronze inscription.

    Chi (2010) proposes that 黃 was originally a pictogram (象形) and the original character of 尪 (OC *qʷaːŋ, “a disabled person with a protruding chest or abdomen”). It has been phonetically borrowed for "yellow" since the era of the oracle bone script. He (1998) noted the possible ritual of burning disabled people with a protruding chest or abdomen to pray for rain as mentioned in Zuozhuan. The 口 in the upper part of the bronze inscription of 黃 might be depicting the disabled person's face facing upwards.

    Li (2012), on the other hand, proposes that 黃 was originally a pictogram (象形) and the original character of 璜 (OC *ɡʷaːŋ, “semicircular jade”) as the 口 in the oracle bone script resembles a ring of jade, so the character would carry the meaning of "a man wearing a ring of jade on his chest". The meaning "yellow" is the result of rebus.


    From Proto-Sino-Tibetan *hwaŋ (“shine; bright; yellow”). Cognate with 光 (OC *kʷaːŋ, *kʷaːŋs, “light; bright”), 曠 (OC *kʰʷaːŋs, “bright; well-lit”), Burmese ဝင်း (wang:, “bright”).


  16. martin schwartz said,

    August 3, 2021 @ 6:03 pm

    @Daniel Tse: Middle Persian vocabulary is chiefly attested in 2 forms, Manichean Middle Persian, written fairly phonetically in the consonantal Manichean script, Zoroastrian Book Pahlavi,
    which my teacher W.B> Henning called an invention of Ahriman
    (the Devil). The latter is dogged by ambiguity of the shapes of characters, historical and pseudo-historical spellings, and Aramæograms. While there is a descendent of Aramaic r in the script, it has the same shape (|) as n, w, and (in Aramaæograms)
    'ayin, and a final meaningless stroke; and the sound /r/ is (consequently?) written as , i.e. L.. –Orthographic snake venom, indeed.
    @ Cameron: right!

  17. martin schwartz said,

    August 3, 2021 @ 7:58 pm

    @Victor Mair, Cameron: After bezoar, one may start a blog on
    musk pods/glands. I was once given one by an Iranian student of mine. I didn't open it, remembering that Henning told us a bit of musk was fragrant, but a lot quite fetid. The pod was dry, which suggests a Persian poem rhyming mošk with xošk 'dry'. In Persian literature, the musk oxen/deer par excellence lived in Khotan. There must be Chinese literature on it. Eng. musk derives from Persian mušk/mošk, cognate with Skt. 'testicle'
    and ultimately the "mouse" word.

  18. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 3, 2021 @ 8:23 pm

    My first encounter with “bezoar” involved reading about it in connection with eating too many persimmons. I think the reference was in a novel or short story set in the Southern U.S., but I don’t recall the specifics.

  19. Chris Button said,

    August 3, 2021 @ 10:49 pm

    Chi (2010) proposes that 黃 was originally a pictogram (象形) and the original character of 尪 (OC *qʷaːŋ, “a disabled person with a protruding chest or abdomen”).

    This proposal didn't originate here. Qiu Xigui (1983) "On the Burning of Human Victims … " has a good discussion and puts it back to Tang Lan in the 1960s. Regarding the actual graphic form of 黃, Qiu's discussion of its association with 交 is interesting.

  20. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 4, 2021 @ 9:15 am

    ^^ same re: "Li 2012", which reflects I think Xu Zhongshu's idea — though not "on his chest"; the idea was yu4 pei4 玉佩 i.e. insignia strung at the waist.

  21. Wanda said,

    August 4, 2021 @ 10:50 am

    Yellow is from "disabled people with a protruding chest or abdomen?" In alcoholic hepatitis, which is gotten by drinking too much, people both accumulate fluid in the abdomen (and thus it protrudes) and become jaundiced (yellow). Actually any kind of hepatitis can do it, but I assume that there were habitual drunkards back then.

  22. Vibhu Mittal said,

    August 4, 2021 @ 1:19 pm

    'be' — a prefix indicating negation
    'zahr' — poison

    Thus, one explanation of the word is 'something that negates poison'

  23. Stephen said,

    August 4, 2021 @ 3:12 pm

    I keep thinking of bizr, roasted seeds. I don’t know if that is specifically pumpkin seeds, but is the similarity of sound just a coincidence?

  24. Eli said,

    August 4, 2021 @ 4:06 pm

    Like Barbara I first learned the word from fiction – in my case a story in Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics, "Calliope", where there's a fairly horrible minor character who's gone to a lot of effort to collect bezoars (in particular a trichobezoar, one that's composed of hair – an awkward mixture of Greek and Persian words, but nevertheless used in medical literature).

  25. cameron said,

    August 4, 2021 @ 4:07 pm

    @Vibhu Mittal : If it were bizahr in Persian, your analysis would make sense. But the initial consonant in Persian is /p/, and the first syllable vowel is /ɑː/. It seems to have gone through an Arabic filter. Persian /p/ usually becomes /f/ when native Arabic speakers try to grapple with it, but sometimes it becomes /b/.

    As noted above, the word headed west from middle Persian. In both middle Persian and modern Persian the source word is pādzahr

  26. Victor Mair said,

    August 4, 2021 @ 7:09 pm

    From the marvelous Hobson-Jobson:

    BEZOAR, s. This word belongs, not to the A.-Indian colloquial, but to the language of old oriental trade and materia medica. The word is a corruption of the P. name of the thing, pādzahr, 'pellens venenum,' or pāzahr. The first form is given by Meninski as the etymology of the word, and this is accepted by Littré [and the N.E.D.]. The quotations of Littré from Ambrose Paré show that the word was used generically for 'an antidote,' and in this sense it is used habitually by Avicenna. No doubt the term came to us, with so many others, from Arab medical writers, so much studied in the Middle Ages, and this accounts for the b, as Arabic has no p, and writes bāzahr. But its usual application was, and is, limited to certain hard concretions found in the bodies of animals, to which antidotal virtues were ascribed, and especially to one obtained from the stomach of a wild goat in the Persian province of Lar. Of this animal and the bezoar an account is given in Kaempfer's Amoenitates Exoticae, pp. 398 seqq. The Bezoar was sometimes called Snake-Stone, and erroneously supposed to be found in the head of a snake. It may have been called so really because, as Ibn Baithar states, such a stone was laid upon the bite of a venomous creature (and was believed) to extract the poison. Moodeen Sheriff, in his Suppt. to the Indian Pharmacopœia, says there are various bezoars in use (in native mat. med.), distinguished according to the animal producing them, as a goat-, camel-, fish-, and snake-bezoar; the last quite distinct from Snake-Stone (q.v.).

    [A false Bezoar stone gave occasion for the establishment of one of the great distinctions in our Common Law, viz. between actions founded upon contract, and those founded upon wrongs: Chandelor v. Lopus was decided in 1604 (reported in 2. Croke, and in Smith's Leading Cases). The head-note [ 91a ]runs—"The defendant sold to the plaintiff a stone, which he affirmed to be a Bezoar stone, but which proved not to be so. No action lies against him, unless he either knew that it was not a Bezoar stone, or warranted it to be a Bezoar stone" (quoted by Gray, Pyrard de Laval, Hak. Soc. ii. 484).]
    1516.—Barbosa writes pajar.

    [1528.—"Near this city (Lara) in a small mountain are bred some animals of the size of a buck, in whose stomach grows a stone they call bazar."—Tenreiro, ch. iii. p. 14.]

    [1554.—Castanheda (I. ch. 46) calls the animal whence bezoar comes bagoldaf, which he considers an Indian word.]

    c. 1580.—"… adeo ut ex solis Bezahar nonnulla vasa conflata viderim, maxime apud eos qui a venenis sibi cavere student."—Prosper Alpinus, Pt. i. p. 56.

    1599.—"Body o' me, a shrewd mischance. Why, had you no unicorn's horn, nor bezoar's stone about you, ha?"—B. Jonson, Every Man out of his Humour, Act v. sc. 4.

    [⁠"⁠ "Bezar sive bazar"; see quotation under MACE.]

    1605.—The King of Bantam sends K. James I. "two beasar stones."—Sainsbury, i. 143.

    1610.—"The Persian calls it, par excellence, Pazahar, which is as much as to say 'antidote' or more strictly 'remedy of poison or venom,' from Zahar, which is the general name of any poison, and pá, 'remedy'; and as the Arabic lacks the letter p, they replace it by b, or f, and so they say, instead of Pázahar, Bázahar, and we with a little additional corruption Bezar."—P. Teixeira, Relaciones, &c., p. 157.

    1613.—"… elks, and great snakes, and apes of bazar stone, and every kind of game birds."—Godinho de Eredia, 10v.

    1617.—"… late at night I drunke a little bezas stone, which gave me much paine most parte of night, as though 100 Wormes had byn knawing at my hart; yet it gave me ease afterward."—Cocks's Diary, i. 301; [in i. 154 he speaks of "beza stone"].

    1634.—Bontius claims the etymology just quoted from Teixeira, erroneously, as his own.—Lib. iv. p. 47.

    1673.—"The Persians then call this stone Pazahar, being a compound of Pa and Zahar, the first of which is against, and the other is Poyson."—Fryer, 238.

    ⁠"⁠ "The Monkey Bezoars which are long, are the best…."—Ibid. 212.

    1711.—"In this animal (Hog-deer of Sumatra, apparently a sort of chevrotain or Tragulus) is found the bitter Bezoar, called Pedra di Porco Siacca, valued at ten times its Weight in Gold."—Lockyer, 49.
    1826.—"What is spikenard? what is mumiai? what is pahzer? compared even [ 91b ]to a twinkle of a royal eye-lash?"—Hajji Baba, ed. 1835, p. 148.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    August 5, 2021 @ 3:38 pm

    From Judith Lerner:

    In what I think is still the most comprehensive text on Sasanian seals—the British Museum catalogue (1969)— A.D.H. Bivar cites al-Mas’ūdi’s account of Khosro II’s nine seals, one of which was a bezoar, described as being engraved with a fly, and used by the king to seal food, drugs, and perfumes—sensible if a bezoar was considered an antidote against poisons. To my knowledge, none of the 100s—actually, 1000s—of engraved bezel-type stones from Sasanian times is a bezoar. But if anyone wants to see a range of bezoars, go to, the website of the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum that shows the nine bezoar stones salvaged from a 17th-century Spanish ship off Key West, Florida; not part of the collection, but included on the site, is an enameled gold bezoar stone holder. So one can imagine how these stones could be carved and set into a mount, such as a ring.

    Interesting that in China bezoars from cows are preferred; to my knowledge, in Iran the stones that were used were mainly from goats and antelope.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    August 5, 2021 @ 5:06 pm

    From Hilary Smith:

    Bezoar stones in early modern England:

    "Ox Bezoars and the Materiality of Heian-period Therapeutics":

  29. Andreas Johansson said,

    August 10, 2021 @ 8:01 am

    I too encountered "bezoar" first in Gaiman's "Calliope", and until today I'd assumed it was trisyllabic.

    Checking a dictionary, the apparently the normative pronunciation is trisyllabic in my native Swedish. Not that I'm sure I've ever had occasion to say the word in any language.

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